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The Greatness of William Blake


by William Blake, selected and introduced by Patti Smith
Vintage, 192 pp., $9.95 (paper)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
‘Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve’; watercolor by William Blake for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1808


There are many William Blakes, but mine arrived with the tigers in the 1960s. The first line I ever read by Blake was not in a book, but laid out in thick white paint (or should I say illuminated) along a brick wall in Silver Street, Cambridge, England, in 1968. It was not poetry, but prose: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” It sent a strange shiver down my spine, as it did for thousands of other university students in England and America that year.

It turns out that, according to The New York Times of December 28, 1968, exactly the same line from Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” appeared on big posters at the conference of the Modern Language Association in New York. According to the Times it signified that “Radical Agitation Among Scholars Grows,” and it led to several arrests.

This of course was the time of radical disturbances on university campuses across Europe, as well as Vietnam War and civil rights protests in America. Very quickly we all seemed to be reading Blake’s preface to Milton. This contains the great radical hymn, now known as “Jerusalem,” with which we identified; although in England, paradoxically, it was also sung at the patriotic last night of the London Proms concert amid much flag-waving, and still is:

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

But we also found at the start of the preface a thrilling exhortation that seemed to speak to us with extraordinary force and immediacy:

Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war.

Later this passage was used to set the theme and temper of Theodore Roszac’s influential book The Making of a Counter-Culture (1969). Penguin produced a popular anthology inspired by Blake: Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969). Allen Ginsberg began hypnotically chanting Blake at huge public readings, sometimes accompanied by what appeared to me (at the London Festival Hall, at any rate) to be a small, droning, portable harmonium.

In those days we didn’t tackle Milton itself, which seemed a strange production, one of the so-called Prophetic Books, very long and labyrinthine, and apparently requiring beforehand a total immersion in Fearful Symmetry (1947), Northrop Frye’s equally labyrinthine study of Blake’s symbolism. But we did find and celebrate Blake’s two great explosive revolutionary chants from the Songs of Experience (1794), “The Tyger” and “London.” The first…

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