Friday, May 8, 2009

William Blake's "Perfectly Mad Poem, Jerusalem"

That's how one detractor described William Blake's most ambitious prophetic book, Jerusalem, The Emanations of the Giant Albion*. And at first glance we are inclined to agree. It's an impossibly complicated mess of a book with all of Blake's tangled personal mythology in it. It looks like the work of a mad obsessive.
That is exactly how it appeared to Blake's contemporaries, who largely ignored him. On those rare occasions when he got public notice, it was always hostile.

William Blake meant a lot to me as a teenager. I didn't play well with others back in my adolescence, and had few real friends until toward the end of my high school days (when I found all the other misfits). I read Blake's poetry and collected reproductions of his art in those days. I left a cheap copy of his illustrations to Job behind in class one day, only to return to find students and my English teacher (!) going through it and laughing at how freaky it looked. Blake's struggle was mine.
Even more than that, Blake showed me a way to embrace life and imagination that seemed so much more authentic than the enforced conventionalism I grew up in. Blake pointed a way forward and outward into a much larger and more wonderful world than my neighbors cared to think about.

And now, Blake means so much to me again. Blake was in his 50s when he made Jerusalem, and so am I now. As an adult, I can appreciate the hard experience that generated his visions. I know the historic context of his work better now, and it appears even more astonishing an accomplishment 35 years later. I admire his greatness as an artist; an extraordinary thing for a hidebound reactionary classicist to admit.

Jerusalem is probably my favorite work of his. It's a long tangled allegory about England during the Napoleonic Wars and at the beginnings of industrial capitalism. It's a profound and mystical love of country and a passionate protest against its reactionism and corruption. It's a meditation on faith versus piety, love versus legalism set against the very legalistic state Anglicanism of his day. It's a meditation on art and poetry and their beginnings in erotic and spiritual longing, and on their fulfillment in love.

Jerusalem contains images combining sexual and spiritual longing, like the one above. Blake advocated free love, but fortunately for Catherine Blake, he never practiced it.

He equated erotic longing and artistic creation very literally in the illustration above. Los, Blake's personification of spiritual exploration and artistic creation, sits by his forge that billows flame and smoke throughout the page, listening to a bat-winged spirit. He holds his hammer in an almost ridiculously phallic pose. His chain operated bellows echoes the form of the spirit's bat wings, perhaps indicating Los' kinship with him.

There are striking images of torment like the one above. My Canadian friend who lives in London, Ian, hates Blake. He thinks that Blake was nothing more than a repressed homosexual using all that spirituality to cloak his own desires. There may be some truth to that, but I'm not sure it's a reason to dismiss Blake out of hand. I think there is a lot of homoeroticism in Blake's work, but it's small potatoes compared to the homoeroticism in the work of his great French contemporary, Gericault. Blake may have had some very ambivalent passions for his younger brother Robert, but that's nothing compared to Gericault painting his 19 year old studio assistant Jamar swooning in nude abandon in the lower left corner of the Raft of the Medusa, and then making a pass at him.

There are marvelous illustrations like these of encounters with Christ and with God the Father where the fires of spiritual passion and sexual desire are completely merged.

In the last illustration set against a fiery backdrop, God embraces a soul of indeterminate gender. I think the gender ambivalence is deliberate on Blake's part. It is a passionate joyous embrace.

I love the use of color in this book, especially the reds, blacks, and blues incorporated into a beautiful overall golden tonality. The text is printed in gold color with an occasional blue wash to set it off. The incorporation of the human figure into a strong rhythmic background suggesting energy is something he adapted from both medieval art and from Michelangelo.

For all of Blake's insistent medievalism, this book is thoroughly modern. It is so very personal and idiosyncratic, a masterpiece for an age of self-consciousness.

Blake is very out of fashion today. That earnest visionary idiosyncrasy is so much at odds with our disillusioned and (worse) disenchanted little age. I thought about that when I visited St. Paul's in London. I saw a memorial bust of Blake in the crypt down among the tombs of the artists. I couldn't help but think how displeased he would be with the tribute. He hated St. Paul's. He would have agreed with Byron when he called St. Paul's just so much commerce piled high. And yet in fairness to Christopher Wren, St. Paul's today looks as richly spiritual and out of place as anything imagined by Blake. It looks like the Celestial Jerusalem compared to the arrogant soul-less towers of the financial companies of the City. Those same towers dominate almost every city center on earth today.

Blake was out of fashion in his own day. Britain of the Napoleonic era was as disillusioned and disenchanted a place as any today. People buried their disappointment and sorrow in either reaction or commerce (just like today, only we would add dazzling and distracting entertainment). Blake accepted none of it, and paid a very high price. While he was working on Jerusalem, he was arrested and tried for sedition, a capital offense. He was acquitted, but the experience must have been as deeply frightening as it was enraging. He was under police surveillance for his political views most of his life. He was born poor and lived in poverty all of his life. He was a marginal character, attracting wide admiration only in his old age. He had a small group of nonconformist young admirers including artists like Samuel Palmer and John Linnell. More establishment figures like Benjamin West, the second president of the Royal Academy, also admired Blake's work. Blake was one of the very few British cultural rebels who didn't end his life a conservative apologist and pillar of the Establishment.

William Vaughn, the great art historian, in his short biography of William Blake ruefully noted that Blake is the hero and the model of the legions of marginalized visionaries and talents out there. Careerists like Damien Hirst are the models for fame and fortune in a consumer culture such as ours. Art is nothing but a high end luxury item and status trophy these days. It's old role of finding and creating meaning is now obsolete in an age that discarded the whole idea of meaning long ago. Like other celebrity stylists, artists must constantly surprise and reinvent themselves to keep the attention of a too easily bored public. At best, contemporary art offers some weak unfocused protests that look high minded and irrelevant compared to real protest gestures. It's hard to be anything but passive when you don't really believe in much.

I count myself among those marginalized legions who love Blake, and I don't apologize.

*NOTE, the famous Blake poem and hymn "Jerusalem" is from another one of his prophetic books, Milton, not this book, Jerusalem.


it's margaret said...

I love Blake too. I was transfixed by seeing some originals in London. I couldn't get enough --he was right-on that copied machined prints are diminished articulations of the original. (But it is mostly through those type of copies that I have been fed by him. --alas, I have been to London only once....)

--thank you for this reflection of radicalism, especially on this day as the news oozes out of Jamaica.

Counterlight said...

Indeed, I've been following the news out of Jamaica myself. As Blake said, "Prisons are built with stones of Law/ Brothels with bricks of Religion."

I've only been to London once myself, and only for 3 days, not enough time to go to the Tate Gallery, alas.
Next time I go, the Tate, and Blake's grave in Bunhill Fields are on the top of my itinerary.

June Butler said...

Count me as another lover of Blake. I saw an exhibit of his originals at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge many years ago. The originals were astonishing. The pictures depicted scenes from the Bible, some from the Book of Revelation, and they were terrifying. Who better than Blake to paint the Apocalypse?

Not a few said that both his art and his poetry were the works of a madman, but in his world he may have been one of the sanest.

motheramelia said...

How utterly fascinating. I've seen a few of Blake's works, but never knew the story behind them. I wonder when the British sing "Jerusalem" at the Pops if they have any idea about the author. Thank you.

error60091 said...

I read "Jerusalem" for a Blake seminar in college. Very dense material. His illuminated works are truly fascinating. His ideas torment me to this day. Nevertheless, Blake was a mystic and is an original. The graphic novel/comic/artists owe a debt to him.

S. said...

Jerusalem or Vala, despite the fact it is incomplete, is probably my favorite of Blake's works.

Did you read about Blake's hatred for St. Paul's in one of his biographies or in "From Hell." I ask just because while Ackroyd mentions it, I first read about that in Moore's work.