Lord of Unreason

Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law

by E.P. Thompson
The New Press, 234 pp., $30.00

The first graffiti I ever encountered was “Billie Blake Lives” sprayed on a large green rubbish bin outside “everweeping Paddington Station. That was thirty years ago now, and you do not see “Billie” so often in London; yet Blake’s peculiar living presence in the British counterculture remains assured. Anyone who has met (and maybe conversed with) his visionary bronze head, as powerful as any cannonball, in the slumbering upper chamber of the National Portrait Gallery, will recognize his disturbing force. It was cast, from a life mask of 1823 by the phrenologist James Deville, “as representative of the Imaginative Faculty.” The huge eyes are closed, but apparently all-seeing; the smooth round skull seems to hum with “eternal Energy”; the whole thing looks as if it will explode at any minute. The Portrait Gallery assistants, in their official blue uniforms, patrol around it with a certain care.

Largely unrecognized in his own lifetime—The Songs of Innocence and Experience sold less than thirty illuminated copies—William Blake is now popularly accepted as the author of the “alternative” national anthem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Set to music by Hubert Parry, it has been sung by Suffragettes, striking unions, state school assemblies, Prom concert goers, soccer crowds. The words of his great protest poem “London” are meaningfully cut into the pavement of the Jubilee Walkway on the Thames Southbank opposite the Houses of Parliament. His “Proverbs of Hell” can still be found on the crumbling concrete walls of slum housing in Hackney or Brixton. His pictures of “Los” and “Albion” hang as posters in innumerable bedsits (though now as Sixties retro). His visions of “The Tyger” and “The Sick Rose” greet dazed commuters swaying in rush-hour Underground trains. More than any other Romantic poet—if he was indeed a Romantic—Blake has been adopted as the people’s bard, the “Devil’s Party,” the “Contrary State,” the voice of eternal Opposition and Delight.

But how did this come about? To which people, and to what party, did Blake originally belong in those years of obscurity? This is the question that has exercised modern critics; together with a growing sense that for all his present popularity, Blake’s work as a whole is profoundly difficult to place and interpret. From the publication of Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), the uneasy awareness of Blake’s private mythology, of the great mad Biblical machinery of the Prophetic Books, has cast its shadow over the entire enterprise. How far have we understood Blake at all?

Coleridge’s startled reaction to Blake, given in the characteristic postscript to a letter of February 1818, already sets out the problem in a way familiar to modern readers.

PS. I have this morning been reading a strange publication—viz. Poems with very wild and interesting pictures…printed and painted by the Author, W. Blake. He is …

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