William Blake wasn’t big on what we now call sound bytes, so he’s far from a widely quoted poet. For the pithy quote apropos of whatever situation is currently at hand we turn to Shakespeare, of course, but also John “for whom the bell tolls” Donne, John “soul-making” Keats, and the many others who savored the gnomic nugget. But that doesn’t mean Blake hasn’t had a lasting effect on us. It’s just been a very sneaky influence.
Without Blake the aforementioned Keats, and his big brother (in spirit) P.B. Shelley, and the rest of the Romantic posse, would not have been, or at least would not have been as high flying as they were. Away from England, that “green and pleasant land” (“Jerusalem”), there’s Walt Whitman who, like Blake, saw Mind (yes, the capital is required) as the “door of perception” (“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) that opens on to Heaven. Between the Romantics and Whitman, there’s a tremendous momentum and that exploded in a burst of cultural energy—the likes of which we now living shall likely never see again—in the person of Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg, of course, was overtly indebted to both the Romantics, to Blake in particular (see especially “Sunflower Sutra”) and to Whitman, his homopoetic hero. More, though, Ginsberg stands as an emblem of the 1960s, an era which, aesthetically and psychologically, owes a great deal to Blake. To hear the echo of Blake’s rhythms and to appreciate the tensions of his syntax, we could turn to Ginsberg or any number of poets who flourished in and around the 1960s, as well as a great deal of the music from that period as well. Acid rock, after all, is Blakean romanticism on, well, acid. Just listen to Jefferson Airplane’s anthem, “Crown of Creation,” just about anything (ever) by Pink Floyd, or middle-period The Doors. In visual media, too, Blake was clearly a head avant le letter: hold up a Fillmore poster announcing an Airplane/Dead concert next to Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Ancient of Days” (that’s the one with the bearded guy stooped over a protractor like it’s an instrument of God—or, as Blake argued, Satan) and the influence is breathtakingly clear.
Aldous Huxley’s 1954 The Doors of Perception (from whence the name of the rock group) put Blake on track to be the Main Man of the entheogen-imbibing mind-over-matter crowd. But the poet, artist, and printer has met a strange fate. Unlike Shakespeare, about whom next to nothing is known for sure yet about whom we seemingly know everything (that is, if speculation counts as knowledge which, I suspect, Blake would say it does—as long as it’s speculation based on experience), while with Blake, about whom we know a great deal, we know nothing. He had a fascinating life, though, and that’s one of the great boons of Penguin’s Selected Poems.
Like so many of the great works of the traditional canon it publishes, Penguin hires really smart, well-informed people to edit and provide introductions. Blake’s life, and his intense devotion to both his wife and his work, seem to me a great role model in an era when mass reproduction and instant gratification via download and teenage blowjob are the norm. Blake (with the possible exception of the Moses/God/Ten Commandments routine, if you buy that story) was the original DIY/print-on-demand publisher. He and his wife, Catherine, were in control of the books they produced from inception to retail distribution. Blake wrote his poems, sketched his drawings, etched his plates, made his own inks while (probably) Catherine (she of the clean hands, as the Selected’s editor says) ran the press, applied watercolors to the printed plates and did much of the binding (sewing – bah, women’s work). And then they sold the volumes out of their shop and by subscription. (The Olden Days were weird: you could subscribe to books back then.) Not that Blake was above commercial considerations; in that respect, he was like Martin Scorsese, who says he makes a film for the studios to raise the cash to make the film he wants to make. One for the bean counters, one for me….
And what of the poetry? They “make our limbs quake, if our hearts be warm.” I suppose I was dimly aware that Huxley’s book and the performers of “Weird Scenes inside the Gold Mine” were indebted to the greatest of the Romantics, but it wasn’t until the 1973 release of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery that the Blake bug bit me. The album opens with the majestic hymn “Jerusalem” (as the lads called it; it’s really a preface from one of Blake’s long poems, Milton) which Greg Lake, perhaps not a stellar tenor, delivers with fervor and conviction:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;The song just about converted an atheist, especially since the martial verse quoted here is followed by “I will not cease from Mental Fight” and is punctuated by the question (timeless, it seems to me now) “And was Jerusalem builded here / Among those dark Satanic Mills?” (The music was not Blake’s; we owe that to a certain C. Hubert H. Parry, who penned the setting in 1916.)
Bring me my Arrows of Desire;
Bring me my Spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
And then there’s the, so to speak, Inner Blake. Beyond the (deceptively) simple Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (from which forest the famous Tyger burns bright in the Night) are the, well, Weird Scenes inside a Golden Mind. Blake was a religious rebel who, in his poetry at least, beat the crap out of organized religion. And made up his own, transcendent, epistemological cum phenomenological Christianity. Blake’s big influence was the mystic Swedenborg, but Blake mystified the mystic. A good literary scholar, with her whip and chair, can tame these long poems, with their made up words (like “Orc”) and imaginary geographies (said Orc looks down from “the heights of Enitharmon”), but visions they were and it as visions—untamed by the brute force of historical scholarship—that they are best experienced.