William Blake's art challenges the viewer to take it on a high level or not at all. He once asked if painting should be "confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances . . .?" He then characteristically answered his own question: "No, it shall ot be so! Painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts." Inspiration rather than formal observance, exultation and song rather than a dull restriction of the imagination, informed his notion of religion and it informed his notion of art.
This watercolor drawing, "The Morning Stars Sang Together" (traditionally dated ca. 1821, but thought by more recent scholarship to be drawn about 1805 or 1806), is the first known version of a subject he later repeated in watercolor and also as an engraving. It comes from his sequence of illustrations to the Book of Job. It presents pictorially one of the sublime questions put to Job in the narrative by God: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . Or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"
Blake, of course, interprets the story of Job in his own terms -- it invites such interpretation. His style is highly personal mixture of the "Classical" and the "Medieval," and the arrangement of this illustration into "regions" shows him switching, as context demands, from the central figure's flowing sinuosity to the reminiscence of awkwardly confined Gothic statuary with Job, wife, and friends, to the frieze-like line of singing figures at the top, with arms outstretched and crossing each other: a kind of emblematic but surprisingly expressive repeat pattern. In the later engraved version, these four "sons of God" are continued to the edge of the picture so that they appear to be only part of an endless series, extending far beyond our framed vision. Blake's fascination with this joyful, chanting choir, lifting this upright picture into celestial reaches that are in telling and vivid contrast to the cribbed ignorance of Job and friends, was nothing new in his art: these characters had d appeared quite frequently in earlier works. Here, though, they attain a peak of orderly jubilation. They relate formally, as Anthony Blunt has pointed out, to an engraving of a relief from Persepolis, published in 1776.
Blake's pictures, like the Book of Job, invite interpretation and there has been no shortage of this in Blake literature. He even reinterpreted his own conceptions when he reworked them. The engraved version of this picture shows a variety of small changes, not without significance. The God figure's hands, for instance, are in this version resting on the clouds; in the engraving the fingers are articulated in a far more independent and creative gesture. The "halo" round his head, here apparently formed out of the clouds is, in the print , definitely a circle of light. And in the engraving, Job, friends and wife no longer look upward with the same dulled, troubled expressions: their experience seems more internalized -- they gaze outwards as though lost in a grim desire to know what their ignorance and obtuseness have hidden from them.
Few artists have been able to instill the illustrative with such high seriousness -- such a feel for great events of a spiritual nature -- as Blake; or for that matter, with a similar capacity for lighthearted exaltation. The viewer is persuaded to identify with each figure, and so experience the different states of consciousness. Their organized juxtaposition creates a kind of hierarchical narrative.
These might be seen ascending, as mute, earthbound "prayer," still limited and dark; as the act of creativity, widely expansive and positive; and finally, "On high," the harmony and ecstasy of the band of angels -- the sons of God shouting for joy, the morning stars singing together: inspiration and joy itself.
But this too is interpretation, and one can never be to sure with Blake -- as he was never too sure with Job.