Radical Agitation, Street Protest and the Poetry of the Underground
There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out in thick white paint (or should I say illuminated) along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, England, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” It sent a strange shiver down my spine, as it did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.
It turns out that, according to The New York Times of December 28, 1968, exactly the same line from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” appeared on big posters at the conference of the Modern Language Association in New York. According to the Times it signified that “Radical Agitation Among Scholars Grows,” and it led to several arrests.
This of course was the time of radical disturbances on university campuses across Europe, as well as the Vietnam War and civil rights protests in America. Very quickly we all seemed to be reading Blake’s preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn, now known as “Jerusalem,” with which we identified; although in England, paradoxically, it was also sung at the patriotic last night of the London Proms concert amid much flag-waving, and still is:
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
But we also found at the start of the preface a thrilling exhortation that seemed to speak to us with extraordinary force and immediacy:
Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war.
Later this passage was used to set the theme and temper of Theodore Roszac’s influential book The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969). Penguin produced a popular anthology inspired by Blake: Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969). Allen Ginsberg began hypnotically chanting Blake at huge public readings, sometimes accompanied by what appeared to me (at the London Festival Hall, at any rate) to be a small, droning, portable harmonium.
In those days we didn’t tackle Milton itself, which seemed a strange production, one of the so-called Prophetic Books, very long and labyrinthine, and apparently requiring beforehand a total immersion in Fearful Symmetry (1947), Northrop Frye’s equally labyrinthine study of Blake’s symbolism.
The Poetry of Protest
But we did find and celebrate Blake’s two great explosive revolutionary chants from the Songs of Experience (1794), “The Tyger” and “London.” The first seemed an invocation of pure energy (with unsettling hints of the atom bomb):
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
The second seemed like a piece of furious, contemporary street protest. The following year I found myself discussing it with two young GIs, as we stood together on the top platform of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They were on European leave, but expecting to fly back to Vietnam. We had a brief and totally unexpected meeting of minds—and hearts—that I have never forgotten. Looking down at the ornate Pisan Baptistery, we quoted Blake to one another:
How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning church appals;
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.
All this seems a long time ago. The poem “London” is now carved for tourists into the pavement on the south side of Westminster Bridge. One can walk into the British Library in London, under the great bronze statue of Eduardo Paolozzi’s version of Blake’s “Newton” (1995), and find Blake’s “Rossetti Notebook” on display under the quiet lamps, and read a digital projection of the original version of “The Tyger,” with its many haunting manuscript variations:
In the well of sanguine woe
In what clay & in what mould
Were thy eyes of fury rolld…
Blake and the 60s
My Blake, the radical visionary poet of the 1960s, seems almost old-fashioned now. I realize how many other Blakes there have been, both before and since. They include the bardic mystic popularized by the poets Algernon Charles Swinburne (1868) and W.B. Yeats (1893); the Marxist protester championed by the scientist Jacob Bronowski (1944); the inspired London dreamer summoned up by the biographers Mona Wilson (1927) and especially Peter Ackroyd (1995); the great psychological mythmaker analyzed by the critics Northrop Frye (1947) and Harold Bloom (1963); the agitator and revolutionary of the political historians E.P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1995) and David Erdman (Blake: Prophet Against Empire, 1974); and the man of “minute particulars” slowly and meticulously assembled by the inexhaustible scholar-researcher G.E. Bentley Jr., the author of two editions of Blake Records (1969, 1988) and A Stranger from Paradise (2001), a monumental compilation-biography, aimed to subdue “the factual Laocoön” of the life.
Add to these Blake as the protagonist of innumerable Freudian, Swedenborgian, Neoplatonist, Zen Buddhist, and, more recently, excellent feminist studies (Women Reading William Blake, 2007, including essays by Germaine Greer, Tracy Chevalier, and Helen Bruder). Nor can we overlook Marsha Keith Schuchard, the author of Why Mrs. Blake Cried (2006), with her detailed explorations (and illustrations) of Blake’s supposed excursions into ecstatic tantric sex.
Yet there is a sense in which the first popular Blake emerged 150 years earlier in the 1860s, as a radical engraver and illustrator, or “Pictor Ignotus.” This was the subtitle—“The Unknown Painter”—of the great Victorian biography by Alexander Gilchrist, first published in 1863, that saved Blake from total obscurity.
In her fine recent study of the growth and decline of poetic reputations among the Romantic poets, Those Who Write for Immortality, Heather Jackson pays a good deal of attention to Gilchrist’s “superb” and “ground-breaking” achievement. Jackson is a distinguished Coleridge scholar and editor. Her lively and immensely knowledgeable book is based on a series of sharply contrasted nineteenth-century literary case histories. She challenges the notion that literary “immortality” must necessarily be based on intrinsic worth, or a “heroic” Wordsworthian concept of emerging merit. “Put not thy faith in posterity,” as she drily observes.
When more than five thousand British writers published at least one book of poems between 1780 and 1835, why—and how—she asks, did less than a dozen survive into the twenty-first century? Why did Wordsworth’s reputation flourish into the twenty-first century rather than George Crabbe’s or Robert Southey’s? Why has Keats survived rather than Barry Cornwall? Why were William Blake and John Clare eventually “recovered,” but not the hugely popular and best-selling “ploughboy poet” Robert Bloomfield?
Part of her answer lies in the reception of the work by each writer. In succeeding generations, there were favorable critics, publishers, biographers, literary societies, schoolteachers, heritage curators, even tourist authorities (like the English Lake District) ready to promote certain authors, but not others. Against all expectation, Blake found just such a champion.
In Chapter 5, neatly entitled “Raising the Unread,” Jackson looks at the idea of “recovery projects” in publishing, and singles out Gilchrist’s biography as the masterpiece. Aided by a handful of Blake’s barely surviving disciples, from the originally youthful “Ancients”—notably the aging painters John Linnell and Samuel Palmer—Gilchrist achieved an astonishing resurrection by the posthumous publication of his Life of William Blake in 1863. “Blake’s may be the most extreme case of rescue from oblivion in literary history.” To which Jackson adds shrewdly: “I doubt we are done reinventing him.”
It has to be remembered that Blake was almost completely forgotten at the time of his death in a tiny two-room apartment in Fountain Court, a narrow alley off the Strand in London, in 1827. He had sold less than thirty copies of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Of the great illuminated Prophetic Books, The French Revolution (1791) had never been published for fear of prosecution, only four copies of Milton (1804/1810) were printed in his lifetime, and only five of his tortured, apocalyptic masterwork Jerusalem (1810/1820), of which just two fully colored originals now remain.
Blake had been mocked in a notorious obituary in Leigh Hunt’s liberal newspaper the Examiner as “an unfortunate lunatic.” Both Wordsworth and Southey thought Blake was “perfectly mad,” and even Coleridge—who was exceptional in having read the Songs in a rare copy, thought Blake was gifted but deeply eccentric. The author of “Kubla Khan” wrote: “You perhaps smile at my calling another poet a mystic; but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake, apo- or rather ana-calyptic poet and painter.” So Gilchrist’s biography was indeed an astonishing work of recovery.
It was also, in several senses, a labor of love. Having published a life of the erotic painter William Etty, Gilchrist and his young wife Anne Gilchrist dedicated themselves and their marriage to a decade of researching and retrieving Blake’s forgotten work, and faithfully retracing his footsteps and the places where he saw his visions. Among these activities is a superb account of Blake’s early and happiest home at 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, just south of the Thames in London, where he wrote and engraved so much of his best and most accessible work: Songs of Experience; America: A Prophecy; A Song of Liberty; Visions of the Daughters of Albion; and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which includes those “Proverbs of Hell”).
Gilchrist unearthed the famous story of Blake and his wife discovered sunbathing naked in the little garden: “Come in! it’s only Adam and Eve, you know.” This supposedly shocking piece of Miltonic nudism has been passionately disputed by scholars ever since, notably by Wilson and Bentley (who consigns it to a footnote headed “Red Herrings”). Nonetheless Ackroyd believes Gilchrist’s account, as witnessing typical Swedenborgian “sexual magic…nothing peculiar,” while it is beautifully vindicated by the novelist Tracy Chevalier in her essay in Women Reading William Blake and in her Blakean fiction, Burning Bright (2007).
The Gilchrists also tracked down Blake’s cottage by the sea at Felpham, Sussex, the only place he lived outside London, where he worked on Milton between 1800 and 1803, writing that rousing preface and such stunning, angry passages as “The Wine-Press of Los”:
This Wine-press is call’d War on Earth: it is the Printing-Press
Of Los; and here he lays his words in order above the mortal brain…
But in the Wine presses the Human grapes sing not nor dance!
They howl and writhe in shoals of torment …
It was also a period of wonderful letters filled with gnomic utterances: “The Ruins of Time build Mansions in Eternity” or “My fingers emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labors.” Here too he was arrested for throwing a drunken soldier out of his garden, and tried for sedition. Felpham incidentally is the one Blakean address that can still be visited today, a long low thatched cottage, of flint and brick, with an extraordinary brooding atmosphere, its deep windows staring out toward the sea and infinity.
Bringing Blake Back to Life
Throughout, Gilchrist gives exuberant and unforgettable verbal descriptions of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts:
The ever-fluctuating colour, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters; the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame … make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries.
These can at last be set against the magnificent six-volume Blake Trust/Princeton facsimile illuminated edition of the Prophetic Books.
But Gilchrist also does something biographically subtler. He draws attention to the quality and range of Blake’s professional work as a commercial illustrator and engraver for others. These examples gave a completely new idea of Blake’s rich and varied connections with his contemporaries, rather than his cultural isolation.
It is now known that Blake engraved research papers for the Royal Society, for a children’s book by Mary Wollstonecraft, for Lavater’s Physiognomy, for Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poem The Botanic Garden, for the Wedgwoods’ Pottery Catalogue, for John Stedman’s antislavery Narrative … Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (illustrations of intense glooming power), and for the biography by his Felpham patron William Haley of the melancholy poet William Cowper, with whom Blake tenderly identified.
Blake also illustrated some of the most widely read serious classics of the day: Milton’s Paradise Lost; Dante’s Inferno; Edward Young’s Night Thoughts; the Book of Job; and Robert Blair’s The Grave, for which Heather Jackson reproduces, appropriately enough, Blake’s superb frontispiece showing a clamorous trumpet-blasting inverted airborne angel of Resurrection.
Gilchrist’s greatest strength lies in what Jackson calls his “sympathetic but not uncritical” understanding of Blake’s psychology, notably addressed in a forthright chapter entitled “Mad or Not Mad?” Gilchrist quietly explains the “extravagant and apocryphal stories” that were current: young Blake seeing angels in the trees, his many later visions in his studio, his jousts against science and literalism, and his belief that his dead brother Robert was still with him thirteen years later and that he wrote from Robert’s dictation. Equally, Gilchrist briskly repudiates any attempt to associate Blake with the then-fashionable Victorian supernaturalism—“the table- turning, wainscot-knocking, bosh-propounding ‘Spiritualism’ of the present hour.”
Most important of all, Gilchrist identified—and reprinted for the first time—key passages in Blake’s work, such as the “Jerusalem” poem, “The Tyger,” and “The Proverbs of Hell.” Yet as Jackson points out, the one aspect of Blake’s work for which he drew something of a blank was the Prophetic Books. After Gilchrist’s premature death from scarlet fever, when weakened and exhausted from his Blake researches, Anne Gilchrist “abandoned” any serious attempt at a commentary. Much of the subsequent history of modern Blake studies has involved various attempts to grapple with these great but undoubtedly difficult works. As Blake wrote in Jerusalem:
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
This is an edited version of The Greatness of William Blake by Richard Holmes, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. To read the full article please click here.
Richard Holmes is the author of the widely-accalimed biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, which won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1974. He is also the author of Coleridge: Early Visions (1989), Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1990), and Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (2013). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1992. He is also a professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia.
Very interesting and educational. Blake and Ginsberg are among my favorite poets. I never get tired of reading and/or pondering their works.
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So pleased to see my map displayed here! An honor for sure. Please amend my surname from MacLean to McLean. Thank you in advance
Thanks Andrea – it’s an extraordinarily beautiful and Blakean image, and apologies for the typo- it’s now been corrected!
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Thanks for the correction. I’m delighted you like the image. I’d be pleased to send you the paper version if you let me know your address! Regards, Andrea