Whatever else can be said about the poet, artist, and mythopoeic visionary William Blake (1757–1827), he is certainly the most forbidding of the English Romantic poets. “He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions,” T. S. Eliot remarked in his essay on Blake. Eliot understood that if Blake’s more esoteric poetry is unpleasant, it nonetheless “has the unpleasantness of great poetry.” Blake’s poetry possessed a terrible honesty. And “in a world too frightened to be honest,” such blunt honesty naturally makes him seem “peculiarly terrifying.” That is to say, Blake affected nothing: his manifold idiosyncrasies and obscurities were entirely sincere. If, as Eliot argues, they ultimately kept Blake from being a “classic,” they nevertheless imbued his work with an unforgettable individuality and determination.

Most people who read Blake find themselves charmed by the limpid songs and poems in his early Poetical Sketches (1783). Among the engraved and hand-colored “illuminated works,” some of the Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) and a handful of epigrams from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790–1793) have fixed themselves indelibly in the public imagination. (“Little Lamb who made thee,” “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,” “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” etc.) This side of Blake’s work is distinguished by a fetching lyric purity, an intense transparency of feeling and diction. Almost everything else—above all the epics and “prophecies”—remains pretty much a closed book. Blake compared his longest and most ambitious poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, to “Homer’s Iliad or Milton’s Paradise Lost.” But his first biographer anticipated most future readers when he described it as “not only abstruse but according to common rules of criticism as near ridiculous, as it is heterogeneous.” Nevertheless, Blake has always appealed to the spiritually unorthodox, and has included among his admirers giants like Swinburne, Yeats, and Shaw as well as poseurs like Allen Ginsberg and the other Beats.

Blake made his living, such as it was, as an engraver and book illustrator. He managed to sell fewer than two hundred copies of his own illuminated books during his lifetime. So obscure a figure was he that, in 1818, he was actually pronounced dead by a publisher who had appropriated one of his engravings for the frontispiece of a collection of sacred music, inscribing the plate “Drawn by the late W. Blake Esq. RA

Blake’s accomplishment as an artist was just as idiosyncratic—and just as robustly individual—as his poetry. I remember one scholar, faced with an exhibition of Blake’s art, concluding in exasperation that he was “a second-rate poet and a third-rate artist.” The ambitious exhibition of Blake’s artwork now on view at the Yale Center for British Art—a celebratory event meant to commemorate the Center’s twentieth anniversary—does not support that judgment. But it does not exactly contradict it, either. Yale’s incomparable collection of Blake’s works, assembled over the years by Paul Mellon, has allowed the curator, Patrick Noon, to mount a comprehensive exhibition of Blake’s oeuvre. The three hundred objects on view cover the entire range of Blake’s art, his hand-colored illuminated manuscripts, his engravings, his watercolors, his illustrations of the Bible, of The Divine Comedy, of Thomas Gray’s poems, and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. This is Blake at his best, and his worst.

The curious thing about Blake is that the one is often so close to the other. When they work, Blake’s drawings and engravings have a rude, mesmerizing power; when they fail, they seem merely crude, at times almost laughable. It is easy to dislike Blake’s art. Once seen, however, it is impossible to forget. What Eliot said about Blake’s poetry holds true of his art as well: “His philosophy, like his visions, like his insight, like his technique, was his own, and accordingly he was inclined to attach more importance to it than an artist should.” It made Blake unmistakably Blake; it also made him eccentric and “inclined to formlessness.” Much of Blake’s artwork was so bound up with his mythopoeic imaginings that, apart from the vision, it seems unintelligible or--worse--downright silly. In one of his most famous epigrams, Blake wrote that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” Blake succeeded in creating his own system, all right. But, as this exhibition reminds us, it is possible to be enslaved by a system of one’s own devising, too.

A catalogue of the exhibition, by Patrick Noon, has been published by the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Press (87 pages, $35; $15.95 paper).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 10, on page 55
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