Meeting Blake for the First Time, by Henry Crabb Robinson

Seeing Blake Plain

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Life mask of Blake, taken in 1823

“Of all the records of his latter years,” the poet and critic Swinburne once noted of Blake, “the most valuable, perhaps, are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake’s actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give.” Others may have understood Blake better than Crabb Robinson – by profession a lawyer and journalist – but no one else was so attentive to his speech, which he carefully recorded in his private diaries (eventually published in 1869 as Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence).

The extraordinary accounts of his meetings with Blake help to answer some key questions: What did Blake sound like? How did he engage with others – what was it like to be in Blake’s company? Thanks to Crabbe Robinson’s remarkable and meticulously recorded entries, we can gain entry and access into Blake’s private world – a sense of what it was like to be the same room as Blake. And also to hear his thoughts – “on art, and on poetry, and on religion” as Crabb Robinson summarises it – including Blake’s view of the nature of imagination, the two Suns, having met Socrates, why there is suffering as well as joy in heaven, his criticism of Jesus, the prelapsarian union of the sexes, Wordsworth’s atheism, and why education is the great sin.

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Blake’s Illustrations of Dante’s Hell, by Eric Pyle

Entering Psychological Hell: The Dark Side of Christianity 

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Updating Dante

‘Dear Sir, I am still far from recoverd & dare not get out in the cold air. Yet I lose nothing by it—Dante goes on the better, which is all I care about’ – William Blake

 

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ – Matthew 5:17

 

‘No thing can become manifest to itself without opposition’ – Boehme

Among William Blake’s last works was a series of illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was an ambitious project for a man of 67 to begin, and he didn’t live to complete it. Even in its unfinished state, however, the series is a rich and fascinating work of art that can add to our understanding of Blake’s philosophy and artistic goals, and be enjoyed for its strange beauty.

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