Magazine article The Spectator

Radical Prophet

Magazine article The Spectator

Radical Prophet

Article excerpt

It's not what you think, we were warned by Jenny Uglow, the far-seeing biographer of Hogarth and Elizabeth Gaskell. Those 'dark Satanic mills' and 'mountains green' of William Blake's epic poem were never intended as an anthem in praise of England's democratic virtues. Blake was neither a conservative, nor nostalgic for an imaginary golden past. On the contrary, he was a republican and a dissenter; an ardent believer in the necessity for personal, social and sexual liberty. In the verses that have become known as 'Jerusalem' he was provoking his readers, warning them that the England of their time was anything but a pleasant land for the vast majority of its people.

How odd, Uglow provoked us into thinking in The Poet of Albion (Radio Four, Tuesday), that these most radical of verses should somehow have become the favourite hymn of the stalwart ladies of the WI and ex-public-school boys. They might feel differently about what they are singing once they know that the poet who wrote them shocked his neighbours by sitting naked in his garden reading Paradise Lost and saw hosts of angels sitting in a tree while walking across Peckham Rye.

As Uglow revealed in her illuminating montage of Blake's extraordinary life and work (with commentary from guests as diverse as Tom Paulin and our own Boris Johnson), Blake was anything but a pillar of the establishment. He lived in genteel poverty with his devoted wife Catherine, illustrating his poems with engravings that were startlingly different from anything else being done at the time. He saw himself as 'a prophet', which perhaps explains why he was not appreciated by his contemporaries, and why his work is so revered now (if not always in the way that Blake himself intended).

He was born 250 years ago this week, and in celebrating his visionary genius Uglow reminded us that the London which he knew was a city of mob violence and terrible poverty, patrolled by armed mercenaries and living under constant threat of insurrection (does anything ever change? ). When he wrote 'Tyger tyger', often thought of now as a poem for children, he was not talking about the dangerous magnetism of the almost mythological beast (tigers were kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London) but the perverted power of the French revolutionaries.

Blake was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792 in Paris during which the French allowed the Terror to be unleashed against their own people. His illustration for his collection Songs of Experience shows a somewhat mournful-looking creature; powerful, yes, but dominated on the page by a much more virile tree. …

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