VISIONARY POET AND ARTIST. Written by Mark Taylor
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
So begins one of the hundreds of strange and imaginative poems of William Blake,
Born in 1757, he was a boy who left school as soon as he had learned to read and write to go to work in his father’s hosiery shop in London.
As a youth he went to the Royal Academy and spent hours drawing the monuments in Westminster Abbey. As a young man of radical views he invented a world and peopled it with creatures and forms from his own fertile imagination. He was a man of genius so far ahead of his time that he was considered mad.
William, one of seven children, was gifted. From childhood he saw visions and conversed with spirits of the long dead, drawing pictures of what was to him normal every day reality. On one occasion he is said to have returned home from school to tell his parents that he had seen a tree filled with angels " bespangling every bough like stars." and only escaped being thrashed by his father through the intervention of his mother who was to encourage him in his early artistic endeavours.
His artistic life grew more important to him as he passed from drawing school to The Royal Academy where he was asked to draw busts of roman statues which he rebelled at. From that time onwards he relied instead on his own mystical world of visions to supply him with subjects for his glowing , intensely coloured, otherworldly paintings. To create these he made his own special version of egg tempera as he refused to use the more conventional oil colours used by his contemporaries. He then began a continuous period of development refining his revolutionary etching and engraving techniques for illustrations of many books of his own creation, including the famous “ Songs Of Innocence” and “Songs Of Experience” which were filled with his own complex imagery and mystical symbols. He is best known though for his terrifying pictures in “The book of Job” where we see man reduced to a crawling savage beast and the full force of the words of the Old Testament brought to life in a series of fantastically imaginative pictures whose traditional English linear style echoes stained glass in medieval churches.
He was a radical thinker who believed in equality of the sexes and races, also free self expression, which brought him into conflict with the establishment. He defied convention further by belonging to a dissenting religious protestant group called the Moravian sect which was considered Gnostic and heretical.
He has the status of saint in this church today and the Moravian seal shows the Lamb of God and flag of St. George in his honour.
He was above all a nationalist who dreamed of the spiritual rebirth of an England undergoing profound change as the cottage industries were moved to the towns and the industrial revolution created areas of terrible poverty as they worked in “the dark satanic mills” in the new conurbations as well as in London.
In a letter to Samuel Palmer , George Richmond tells us “Blake died in the most glorious manner saying that he was going to see that country he had all his life wished to see. Just before he died his countenance became fair, his eyes brightened and he burst out singing of the things he saw in heaven”
William Blake was both man of the people and a patriot. He exemplified much that we hold dear as being quintessentially English, a man of genius, a man at odds with convention, a true eccentric.
As English people, his moving words in 'Jerusalem' will always inspire us. Indeed many feel this is the true English National Anthem.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy lamb of God
In England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance divine
Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have build Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.