When most people look at a tree, they see leaves, maybe birds, or
the occasional kite snagged on a twig. When British poet William
Blake (1757-1827) looked at a tree at age 10, he saw angels perched
on every branch, their radiant wings shining like stars.
The exhibition "William Blake," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
until June 24, includes similarly unexpected sights: demons,
dragons, winged beasts, and a gaggle of bright seraphim. The most
extreme of Romantic poets, Blake never did see anything quite the
same way others do. More than 175 examples of his works, including
illuminated books and large color prints, depict a world of
possibility more than reality.
An odd disjunction exists in Blake's art. From his training as an
engraver, he never escaped the compulsion to minutely detail his
images. The rippling musculature of his heroic, isolated figures is
rendered in sharp outlines and anatomical accuracy. But the settings
are abstract and other-worldly.
The contrast may reflect Blake's dual preoccupations: his concern
with the world both before and after the Fall. His best-known work,
"Songs of Innocence and Experience," merges poems and images to
show the two sides of human civilization. There's the "innocent"
aspect, shown in poems espousing faith and the pastoral beauty of
Then there's the dark side reflecting experience with reality.
These poems express disillusionment. They decry man's cruelty and
injustice in the newly industrialized world.
In Blake's most recognized poem, "The Tyger," he draws vivid word
pictures: "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the
night." After describing the beast's "deadly terrors," Blake asks,
"Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"
Written after the Reign of Terror massacres by rampaging mobs in
Paris following the French Revolution, the poem questions the
existence of evil.
Blake started sketching when he was 3. He began writing poetry at
12. He never lost his childlike sense of wonder, his ability "To
see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower"
(from his poem "Auguries of Innocence"). Wandering the streets of
London, he routinely had visions of angels and biblical prophets.
(His earliest vision was at age 4, when seeing God's head at his
window set him shrieking.)
So convinced was Blake of the tangibility of these apparitions,
he insisted that they "dictated" his verses to him and that he
"copied" his paintings from images in the spirit world.
"Inspiration & Vision," he claimed, were "my Element my Eternal
His contemporaries called him "poor Blake." The newspapers
branded him a lunatic. Blake's reply? "I laugh at Fortune, & Go
on." To earn his living, Blake worked as a commercial engraver, at
which he excelled. …