William Blake's Night Visions
Bywater, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
How deliciously ironic for us clever modern people that the difficulty in looking at William Blake's pictures or, come to that, in reading his poetry -- should be his own binary system of innocence and experience. Come to his work with an innocent eye and you might see a lucid, almost naif, simplicity; the paintings, though blazing with a sort of technical recklessness, seem rooted in the English illuminatory tradition.
An innocent spectator blessed with special acuity might get a sniff of the Dissenter in some of his recurring images; the almost Hellenic groups of prophets, seen side-on, bunched together and foreshortened by his telescopic eye; the zoetrope chorus-lines of angels frozen in a rapturous tap-dance; in particular, the figure of Death, like other men's figures of God (noble, bearded) or of Christ (arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion or blessing) or even the figure of Job: an old man affectionately admonishing his daughters, the hands now pointing at religious pictures on the walls, in each of which a figure hovers, arms outstretched in the identical gesture.
This acute but innocent spectator might be concerned by the occult sexuality of so many of Blake's themes: the crouching leonine men, the coiling snakes, the rosily vulval flowers, the lissom, gamine figures drawn upwards by an ecstatic loss of gravity, like Chagall's flying lovers, transfigured. But our innocent will rapidly recall that such carnal figurations are a venerable (if not entirely respectable) part of the illuminator's toolkit, and will be able to pass on with an unencumbered eye.
For the spectator corrupted by a little experience, though, the problem of Blake becomes almost insoluble. I don't mean "problem" in a narrow-gutted, university-campus manner (all those terrible PhDs). What I mean is that the minute you get even the frailest of hooks into Blake it becomes instantly clear that you are dealing with an artist of such terrible complexity that you instantly lose the ability to respond properly to his work. You find you can manage about one second of intellectual silence before the jabbering starts. It is, frankly, a bugger.
The Tate Gallery's marvellous display of Blake's illustrations to Edward Young's Night Thoughts prompts a whole bar-room of such internalised jabbering. For the no-longer-innocent, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sense that what is really on display here is a perplexing but delicious intussusception in time.
Here's Edward Young: born 1683, died 1765; forgotten now, but of tremendous significance in the 18th and 19th centuries. A canny and urbane chap, Young. Clerical family, and later became a cleric himself. Came to notice aged 29 when he wrote a more-or-less fawning Epistle to George Cranville, who had just become Lord Lansdowne. Got rich on his satire The Love of Fame. Pulled off the Granville trick again in his forties with a poem addressed to Robert Walpole, which scooped him a handsome pension of 200[pounds]. Married late; wife died; fell into melancholy and, from 1742-44, wrote Night Thoughts, a sequence of what are, to modern tastes, jejune, sententious and rather galumphing meditations on death and redemption, distinguished rather by their sheer scale -- 9,000 lines of the stuff -- than by any great poetic precision.
Night Thoughts was a hit, a cult. All over Europe the Enlightenment was being constructed; suddenly, into this gay, satirical, celebratory intellectual climate came this mournful behemoth of a poem. …