There was no one like William Blake. There had been no one like him before and there has been no one like him since. He’s unique not only among English poets but among writers and artists from anywhere in the world. Poets and critics of his own time were unsure whether he was mad; Wordsworth thought he undoubtedly was but said there was something in Blake’s madness that interested him more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.
Creating his own System
He wasn’t alone in creating the sort of mythology he did; there are plenty of people who for one reason or another have begun to create their own mythology and who write at enormous length and indescribable obscurity. Some of them then send me their books to read. But Blake was alone in writing so vividly and so powerfully, and so tellingly.
He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, formed after a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line round a figure: whatever tormented and contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and arms meet each other, the feet grow firmly from the legs.
And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are new inseparable, unforgettable:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear
In every Voice, in every ban.
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
As for the vast and complicated mythology, so forbidding and impenetrable from the outside, full of huge mysterious figures in a landscape of rocks and temples howling in wrath or lamenting in fathomless sorrow — it is daunting, it is difficult, but when we take the time to study it and perhaps even read it aloud, which is the best way of apprehending poetry, we find that it does make sense, it does all fit together, there’s a coherence and a power there and a level of truth and wisdom about human psychology that can strike us like a revelation.
But the poetry is only half of Blake, the half that’s easier to carry about in our memory — easier to talk about, perhaps. The other half is just as important, the pictorial half, the long training, the hours spent drawing the sepulchral monuments in Westminster Abbey, the diligent study of engravings from the great masters, the experiments with varnish and gum and acid and ink and paint, the printing, the extraordinary intense labour and toil that went into every page.
That’s where the exhibition at the Ashmolean, William Blake: Apprentice & Master, really shines. We can see his printing press, or one very like it; we can visit the little room that served him as a studio, we can see the plates he etched, having written on them backwards the words that would print the right way round — in writing so clear that we have no difficulty in reading it today. There’s a physicality, a thingness about that side of Blake that has to be seen with the eye. The ear can bring the poetry to us: only the eye can bring the pictures.
For me, the most moving thing about contemplating the life of Albion’s strangest genius is the sense of solitary, continuing, unrewarded toil. He lived for much of his later life in conditions approaching poverty, depending on commissions to make drawings to accompany other people’s work, some of it of doubtful merit. But he never betrayed his own vision. There’s an integrity in his life and work that commands the deepest respect. And the splendour of his greatest works in word or line is unmatched.
Philip Pullman is the author of numerous best-selling books including the extraordinary (and Blake-influenced) trilogy His Dark Materials and his fictionalised biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. He is the President of the Blake Society, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of our generation.