Art Patrick Reyntiens
So MUCH has been said about William Blake , and his rediscovery,
• principally by Geoffrey Keynes in the 1920s, that there is now practically nothing else worthwhile bringing tolight. The admirable introductory essay by Marilyn Butcher in the catalogue of thb William Blake exhibition at Tete Britain (after an introduclion by Peter Ackroyd, whose biography of the artist is a sine qua non) nearly says it all. But sadly, from the beginning, it must be said that an assembly of some 750 paintings, prints and drawings, of differing size (some as small as 6in x 12in), is exhaustive in every connotation of that word. It suffers from nemeity ie "too muchness". in Lord Clark's description of his 'own life. There's to Much. Too many pictures, too: many people, too many rooms. The only thing there is too little of is light. Viewers are encouraged to steal round the show with their noses glued to the amazing illustrations, simply because, for reasons of preservation, the lighting is so dim as to be depressive. Still, Marilyn Botcher, so far as I can see, makes only two easily avoidable errors in her introduction; that of saying John Flaxman was a painter — which he was not, being the most distinguished neoclassical strulptor that England ever produced — and her complete leek of understanding of the Wiled "transubstantiation", the meaning of which she seems to take from lolop Morganwg, the-bardic name of Edward \Wilms, "poet, Unitarian and stonemason" (Butcher) 1746182b.
',Since we have alighted on the. subject of herdic poets, and therefore of old England, and the tradition of Albion, it is .as well to put Blake into the tradition of that theme and time. Of course there have been ample bardic mythmaking in poetry before — and some spurious myths as well. One only has to instance Ossian by James MacPherson, and the "medieval" poems "found" in Bristol by Chatterton. But the years 1792 -1820 were years of crisis, not only for England and Christianity, but for that authority of the Church of England. This ran parallel to the colossal , upheaval in contemporary France. For from Marilyn Butcher's careful essay it seems certain that the real initial stimulus to William Blake's imagination lay within the period 1792-96. These momentous years abroad had deep repercussions in England, and perhaps especially in London Blake was a non-conformist. He also was completely alien to the classical-based education of the upper classes of that time. The nonconformist elements in the capital, with its different facets of Unitarianism, Swedenborgianism, (John Flaxman was a Swedenborgian) and different political radicalisms such as that of the antinornian Tom Paine, gave unstable but extraordinary fecund dimension to the radical political and religious life in the capital at that time This potentially turbulent unease, amalgamated in some instances with the resuscitation of the Albion myth something that always raises its head in England when the nation is in isolation and fighting for its life, which it certainly was in the 30 years following the French Revolution of 1789. These years seem to have been instrumental in releasing Blake's enormous reserves of imaginative energy which you can see for yourself in the Tale exhibition. His self-generated mythic qualities, which have never been equalled in English art. had been matured on a vast amount of reading when young. It seems, in its extent, parallel to the imagination of Emmanuel Swedenborg (someone Blake heartily loathed and combated in the publication of his Marriage of Heaven and Hell) Swedenborg's Apocalypse Revealed, only one of his voluminous collected works, runs to some 1,000 pages of close print! Blake was up to that. But there were other movements abroad that would eventually mature in the form of Shakerism, and perhaps. though
far away in time and place, the phenomenon of Mormonism. In all these cases there was an unlimited extension of the imagination linked with immovable selfjustification.
In Blake's case the result of this luminous conviction of his own worth were the interminable books of his mythic prophesies. These were long held to be complete gibberish, fully illustrated. But now they have in great part been laid bare and explained.
It was only very late in his life that Blake was afforded the practical help, by John Linnell, that enabled him to illustrate the Book of Job and
the illustrations to Dante. Cary's translation, The Whole of the Divine Comedy, first published in 1814, is of the utmost importance, not only for Blake (who was from his earliest youth wedded to the Gothic as something quite singular for the understanding of the universe) but for the whole English consciousness. For the first time the public could read for itself this imaginative poem of the Middle Ages initiated by an urgent psychological conviction similar to that which Blake himself had. In the illustrations to Dante this consonance between the two is obvious.
What all this feverish activity of nonconformity (to give it a generous title) did to the self-confidence of the Church of England at that time has not yet been examined in depth, to my knowledge. But if we could imaginatively conjure up the lines of defence in intellectual circles in the Established Church it might explain in great part two separate strategies. The first is the emphasis at that time on "natural theology" ... exemplified by William Paley's Evidences (publ. 1802) and the second is the Library of the Fathers, of which Athanasius was given to JH Newman to translate in 1841. Newman had already seen the defects of Paley in 1827, a scepticism that was eventually to lead to this Development of Doctrine (of 1842 or 1843) and to his eventual reception into the Catholic Church.
That may he another story, but the influence of Blake, and such like him on religion and politics at the beginning of the 19th century was a vital stimulus towards the redefinition of the authority of the Church of England, a spiritual journey that is perhaps yet to he completed.