William Blake’s Prophetic and Esoteric Melody in His Writings and Paintings

"He has no sense of the ludicrous, and, as to God, a worm crawling in a privy is as worthy an object as any other, all being to him indifferent. So to Blake the Chimney Sweeper etc. He is ruined by vain struggles to get rid of what presses on his brain—he attempts impossibles."
William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830)

William Blake (1757-1827), English mystical poet, painter, and engraver is among the most original, lyric, and prophetic in the language. By his own effort he learnt Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian. The Bible, Milton, and the Elizabethan poets inspired him profoundly. He also absorbed ideas from the Swedish visionary, Swedenborg, from the German mystic Boehme, from the Neo-Platonist, and from the esoteric doctrine of Rosicrucianism.

During his lifetime Blake was known more as an illustrator than as a poet, and he earned his scant living chiefly by engraving and illustrating other men’s works. His quality as an artist is seen in the plates for Young’s Night Thoughts, the poems of Thomas Gray, Blair’s The Grave, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for the Bible, including 21 illustrations to The Book of Job, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Blake’s poetry was published in a manner most unusual in literary and art history- he personally manufactured every copy. The verses were not typeset but wets, with the engravings that illustrated them, cut into copper plates. The pages themselves he illuminated in water colours. Little valued by his contemporaries, Blake’s illustrations have become prized collectors’ items.

Blake started writing poetry when he was twelve, and his first printed work, Poetical Sketches (1783), is a collection of youthful verse. Amid its traditional, derivative elements are hints of his later innovative style and themes. As with all his poetry, this volume reached few contemporary readers. It contains some crude work but a few lyrics show striking freshness and originality. The influence of Elizabethan poets and song-writers on it is also clear. His genius reached full maturity in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Some of the poems of these volumes (c,g. The Echoing Green, The Lamb, The Little Black Boy, Holy Thursday, The Tyger, A Poison Tree, The Sick Rose, The Chimney Sweeper, and The Pebble) are quite popular. Apparently written for children, the poems are deceptively simple. The two volumes, as do some of his paired poems, show ‘the two contrasted state of the human soul’. While the poems of the first volume praise and stress on innocence, simplicity, spontaneity and joy, those of the second volume denounce and lament over injustice, cruelty, hypocrisy, and poverty The passion and spontaneous melody of these volumes cannot but move their readers. Both series of poems take on deeper resonances when read in conjunction. Innocence and Experience, “the two contrary states of the human soul,” are contrasted in such companion pieces as The Lamb and The Tyger. Blake’s subsequent poetry develops the implication that true innocence is impossible without experience, transformed by the creative force of the human imagination.

Adoration of the Magi-Blake
In The Book of Thel (1789) make used for the first time his own style of flowing free verse and began to create myths. ‘This poem has a peculiar freshness and idyllic charm. The virgin Thel laments the futility of life (in the material world), but is reassured by the lily of the valley, the cloud, the worm, and the clod, who declare that divine love encompasses any creatures and all may find happiness in unselfishness There is also the further suggestion that all evil emanates from the “silver rod” of authority which curbs innocent desires by enclosing love in the “golden bowl” of moral restrictions’ In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ( 1790), a brief and brilliant prose work with the motto “without Contraries is no progression.”, Blake attacked with sardonic humour the basic principles of conventional morality. Through certain paradoxical aphorisms Blake shows that ‘energy is wholesome and life-giving, whereas restraint breeds moral pestilence Tirel (written in 1789, published in 1874) introduces the theme of the blind tyrannical father and his defiant children; its rhetorical free verse is monotonous while its myths and symbols are very obscure.

In 1793 he printed Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America (expressing his condemnation of 18th-century political and social tyranny); in 1794 Europe, a Prophecy and The Book of Urizon (Theological tyranny); in 1795 Los and Ahania; and in 1804 Milton and Jerusalem. The Four Zoas was written and revised in 1795 & 1804. In all these strange and difficult poems we hear of such unfamiliar names as Urizen, Los, Luvah, Enitharmon, and Ore. Despite their complexity, the larger issues of these works are clearly defined in his two major myths, Urizen and Los. Urizen symbolizes all the repressive and circumscribing forces, such as reason and morality, the authority of society and law, anything that puts restraints on the free inner energies of man....As the spirit of evil he is responsible for all the customs and institutions that aroused Blake’s revolutionary resentment. Los, who corresponds to the Biblical Satan, is the good spirit, the symbol of free and wholesome energy, of the spontaneous activity that must not be poisoned by frustration, lie stands for the instinctive and emotional forces of the ego, and above all for the imagination, which in Blake’s system is the highest power of man, the unique organ of good conduct, true art and spiritual illumination. In some passages of the Prophetic Books he suggests a future salvation of world through the reconciliation of Urizen (reason) with Los (imagination) and Luvah (passion). He was assured that when this happy union takes place a New Jerusalem will arise in England.

At Blake’s death, general opinion held that he had been, if gifted, insane; Wordsworth’s verdict was that ‘There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott’, a view in some measure echoed by Ruskin, who found his manner ‘diseased and wild’ but his mind ‘great and wise’. It was not until A. Gilchrist’s biography of 1863 that interest in him began to grow—the 20th century has seen an enormous increase in that interest.

Blake’s poetry is marked by simplicity, spontaneity, melody and moral earnestness, joy, laughter, love and harmony. They are the prevailing notes of his poetry. We also perceive in his work a strain of protest against tyranny and repression of all kinds and of plea for freedom in social, political, ecclesiastical, and intellectual fields. , His lyrics reveal ‘variety and spontaneity of feeling’ which enable them to be compared with the best of those written in English literature. Historically also his position is quite important: ‘he defied reason in an age of rational philosophers and glorified intuition and imagination in an age of scientific skepticism’.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert   
     2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults