WILLIAM Blake, English poet and artist, champion of the imagination and challenger of the 18th century's worship of reason Lonce asked, in a poem written in a depressed state of mind:
Oh why was I born
with a different face?
Why was I not born
like the rest of my race?
At that moment he felt acutely what he doubtless valued greatly for his art and poetry: his sense of being separate, of being an outsider.
Blake's pictures seem, two centuries later, the peculiar visions of a very ``different'' individual. He developed a complex personal mythology to convey his own religious beliefs which were composed of disparate elements shared with, or adapted from, the mystical teachings of the Swede Emanuel Swedenborg and the German Jakob Boehme. He was also attracted to the enthusiastic envangelism of the founder of English Methodism, John Wesley. But his amalgam of basically Christian thought was as much his own as his art and writing were: a profound commitment to innocence and forgiveness, and a highly personal cosmology in which the ``spiritual'' is equated with imagination and the ``materialistic'' with the binding limits of reason.
Art could never, in Blake's terms, be observation of nature, the copying of what the physical eye sees; it had to embody a freedom of thought, an inner vision - but it had to be depicted with determined outline and specific detail. It was as if Blake felt imagination had to make itself concrete enough to convince even the down-to-earth rationalists.
A deliberate flouting of conventions - a deeply rebellious spirit, a strong sense of indignation - mingled with a gentleness and even a desire to please in Blake's character. His personality fascinated his admirers and surprised his doubters. Some thought he was a saint; some a madman.
Either way, as an artist he left for posterity some quite remarkable and indelible images. He used the human body as his expressive language, but invested it with a positively balletic capacity to move and contort itself. As a poet, he composed poetry that has made a vivid stamp on English literature. (Think of the song/hymn known as ``Jerusalem'' written in the Preface of his poem called ``Milton,'' or ``Tyger! Tyger! burning bright.'')
Both in pictures and words, Blake, at his strongest, has an originality that seems to stem from his ability to keep the frank and forceful simplicity of a child. It's a distinctly ``Romantic'' attitude, never forgetting that ``heaven lies about us in our infancy'' in Wordsworth's words. Blake's way of saying something similar to his compatriot is nevertheless startlingly naive by comparison. This is from ``Infant Joy'':
`I have no name;
I am but two days old.'
What shall I call thee?
`I happy am,
Joy is my name.'
Sweet joy befall thee!
The 20th-century poet Kathleen Raine, in her book about Blake, observed: ``Childhood, for Blake, is the purest essence of the spirit of life; the thing itself.'' She adds: ``Joy - delight - is the essence of life, and all life seeks joy as its natural state. For him, the mechanistic view of the universe - the popular mentality of the Enlightenment ... the philosophy of Bacon, Newton, and Locke - was the enemy of life; life which is immeasurable, not to be captured or contained within the quantitative `laws of nature....'''
In one of his memorable images (most of which, for all their ambition, are quite small colored prints), Blake pictures the scientist, Newton, as a young man sitting on a crusty rock and bending intently forward as he draws with compasses on a paper on the ground. In Blake's view, Newton was typically the ``rational man,'' self-obsessed, incapable of perceiving the ``infinite.'' Both he and his compasses, in Blake's emblematic art, thus signify everything that is alien to Blake's ``imagination.''
It is in this light that we have to see one of Blake's most famous images - repeated a number of times, from its first invention in about 1794 until the final version shown here. This belongs to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England. It was reportedly colored and finished by Blake on his deathbed in 1824.
This image has been given various titles: ``Urizen Creating the Universe'' or ``God Creating the Universe.'' But popularly it is known, after a phrase in Proverbs, as ``The Ancient of Days.''
The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that this patriarchal figure leaning down out of his red disk in the clouds, and spreading his compasses or dividers wide over the blackness, is a symbol of expansive creativity - The ``beginning'' as a broad, all-encompassing, and liberating gesture. But this, in the context of Blake's art and poetry, cannot be so.
The white-haired ancient - who seems not illogically to have come from Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo being an artist Blake intensely admired - is the very opposite of the innocent child that was Blake's ideal. Venerable-looking he may be, but he is ``Urizen,'' and Urizen is Blake's mythological equivalent for the often tyrannical and oppressive ``Jehovah'' of the Bible's Old Testament. To Blake, Jehovah/Urizen was exactly the kind of ``creator'' who was the enemy of ``imagination.'' He decreed laws for a material man and universe which bound and restricted man and universe.
Blake first printed ``The Ancient of Days'' as the frontispiece for his book-poem called ``Europe,'' and words from the Preludium of ``Europe'' explain its message: ``And who shall bind the infinite with an eternal band?/ To compass it with swaddling bands?''
It must be said, though, that for all its fame, and undoubted beauty of coloring and conception, ``The Ancient of Days'' is an ambiguous picture. Blake showed himself more than capable, on other occasions, of inventing images to express oppression and horror. But in this print, the image can be ``read,'' paradoxically, as one of positive revelation, of light dispelling darkness, of a creative act which is generous rather than vindictive, broad rather than narrow.
But art - and Blake's art in particular - can sometimes be all the richer for a certain ambiguity. Blake did not always express himself with the simplicity of a child. He certainly believed that although the thought of Newton with his compasses was a limiting idea, this scientist also had to be given credit for defining the wrong that had to be made apparent if it was to be destroyed. Perhaps his ``Urizen'' creating the universe is of the same kind: a mythical creator of a material universe being a necessary stage in sorting out the wrong from the right. The notion is certainly not without biblical precedent.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that ``there is not a villain upon earth, whose natural propensity, well directed, might not have been productive of great virtues.''
And Blake, essentially a man of hope, said once that all the evil men he had known had something very good about them. He also unquestionably believed that the discoverable obverse of limitation - even if it could only be perceived and grasped through ``imagination'' - was something absolute and illimitable.