When most people look at a tree, they see leaves, maybe birds, or the occasional kite snagged on a twig. When British poet William Blake (1757-1827) looked at a tree at age 10, he saw angels perched on every branch, their radiant wings shining like stars.
The exhibition "William Blake," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until June 24, includes similarly unexpected sights: demons, dragons, winged beasts, and a gaggle of bright seraphim. The most extreme of Romantic poets, Blake never did see anything quite the same way others do. More than 175 examples of his works, including illuminated books and large color prints, depict a world of possibility more than reality.
An odd disjunction exists in Blake's art. From his training as an engraver, he never escaped the compulsion to minutely detail his images. The rippling musculature of his heroic, isolated figures is rendered in sharp outlines and anatomical accuracy. But the settings are abstract and other-worldly.
The contrast may reflect Blake's dual preoccupations: his concern with the world both before and after the Fall. His best-known work, "Songs of Innocence and Experience," merges poems and images to show the two sides of human civilization. There's the "innocent" aspect, shown in poems espousing faith and the pastoral beauty of life.
Then there's the dark side reflecting experience with reality. These poems express disillusionment. They decry man's cruelty and injustice in the newly industrialized world.
In Blake's most recognized poem, "The Tyger," he draws vivid word pictures: "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night." After describing the beast's "deadly terrors," Blake asks, "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"
Written after the Reign of Terror massacres by rampaging mobs in Paris following the French Revolution, the poem questions the existence of evil.
Blake started sketching when he was 3. He began writing poetry at 12. He never lost his childlike sense of wonder, his ability "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower" (from his poem "Auguries of Innocence"). Wandering the streets of London, he routinely had visions of angels and biblical prophets. (His earliest vision was at age 4, when seeing God's head at his window set him shrieking.)
So convinced was Blake of the tangibility of these apparitions, he insisted that they "dictated" his verses to him and that he "copied" his paintings from images in the spirit world. "Inspiration & Vision," he claimed, were "my Element my Eternal Dwelling place."
His contemporaries called him "poor Blake." The newspapers branded him a lunatic. Blake's reply? "I laugh at Fortune, & Go on." To earn his living, Blake worked as a commercial engraver, at which he excelled.
The show highlights Blake's contribution to the art of engraving: his invention of a relief-etching method by which he could draw text and image almost simultaneously on a single copper plate. The method allowed him to integrate words and illustrations into a harmonious whole. Instead of relegating ornament to the borders, Blake's illustrations caper about the page, entwining with the words as their equal.
He was so successful that reading his verses without seeing his pictures is like dancing without music.
Blake derived much of his style from the technical requirements of engraving (clearly defined forms outlined in strong, simplified strokes, with hatching and cross-hatching for shading).
His dominant influence was Gothic art. He never lost his reverence for medieval monuments, which he drew in Westminster Abbey as a young apprentice engraver. His figures are stiff, elongated, vertical, posed in strict symmetry and stylized postures. His paintings could almost be shallow bas-relief sculptures in a Gothic cathedral.
Blake had a gift for dramatic gesture and original composition, shown in his watercolor, "The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins." Blake contrasts the postures of the wise virgins, standing serene as Greek caryatids, to the frantic, emotional flurry of the foolish.
Blake's goal was to penetrate beneath the falsity of appearances to a deeper, spiritual truth. To gain access required imagination. A dissenter in religion and a radical libertarian who opposed all authority, Blake invented his own mythology to replace the flawed society that venerated reason and materialism.
One of his most famous images, "The Ancient of Days," depicts Urizen, a character Blake created to embody reason. In the etching - finished in gold, watercolor, and gouache - Urizen reaches out of red clouds to impose a compass on the world, forcing mankind to obey oppressive laws based on scientific observation. (Needless to say, Blake was opposed to the rationalist, reductive religion of the Enlightenment.) Blake had faith in his prophetic powers. His work, he wrote, was "an Endeavor to Restore what the Ancients call'd the Golden Age."
An early biographer described Blake's last moments: "Just before he died His eyes Brighten'd and He burst out in Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."
The biographer doesn't record specifics, but the legacy of Blake's work sings of what he saw in the innocence of heaven and the experience of earth.
Strictly speaking, Blake's art and poetry are too mannered and obscure to be absolutely first-rank. But it's first-rate dreaming.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor