Poet, poet, burning bright

The iconoclastic poetry and paintings of William Blake

In 1809, the poet and painter William Blake (1757-1827) wrote "A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions," in which he offered detailed self-analysis to accompany an exhibit of 16 paintings and drawings. Alas, by any standard, the exhibit was a failure and few works were sold.

How gratified, then, Blake would be with Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips's "William Blake," a catalog for an exhibit that opened in November at the Tate Gallery in London, and is at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art until June 24. The book includes more than 250 full-color illustrations from the largest exhibit of Blake's work ever mounted.

In succinct essays by the authors and other hands, the explanations of Blake's deeply spiritual ideas are presented in four thematic sections, detailing Blake's lifelong interest in Gothic art and architecture and his responses to the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton.

The book also details his radical political views and his printmaking techniques; his visionary universe and mythical characters; and his major illustrated books.

The authors clearly articulate Blake's complicated iconography, a dazzling interaction of visual and verbal virtuosity, demonstrating in their words that "Joyous energy was the mainspring of Blake's imagination."

Blake responded energetically to the tumultuous events of his day. He signaled the American Revolution in his prophetic poem, "America," but deplored America's failure to end slavery, which he passionately opposed.

He also applauded the French Revolution in a poem of that name, but condemned the Reign of Terror.

In "The Visions of the Daughters of Albion," he denounced male chauvinism and lamented what he saw as his own government's despotism.

To the authors of this book, Blake's iconoclasm marks him as a modernist: "Today, Blake's idiosyncratic annihilation of an accepted world order appears far less eccentric than ever before, as concepts of godhead, space, time and gender appear to be increasingly mutable."

Most important, as Phillips observes, Blake sought "to recover the poetic Christian soul of the English artist. To this effect he vainly sought to rally a whole new generation of artists, 'Young Men of the New Age,' to reject the materialist, secular, classical culture of the eighteenth century, in which art had become a service industry, in favour of an independent, emotional and imaginative art, which drew on ancient native traditions."

Norman Anderson is a former professor of English at Principia College.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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