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Blake at the Tate

Red Pepper, January, 2001

“The voice of honest indignation is the voice of God,” Blake declares (via his imaginary interlocutor, the prophet Isaiah) in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

Clearly, not a personality for an era of emollience and expediency! Nonetheless, crowds are flocking to the exhibition at the Tate, and Blake’s words and images are now more widely disseminated than ever. That’s touching vindication for a man who dreamed of great public commissions and a popular audience, who defined his art as a prophetic call to the nations of the world, but spent the bulk of his life in obscurity and poverty, dismissed or patronised as a crank.

Blake’s honest indignation found vent in a wide array of topical pronouncements, sometimes obscure, sometimes startlingly transparent. Throughout his life, he conducted “intellectual war” against the polite culture of the elite, against official authorities and received wisdom in every realm. “The prince of darkness is a gentleman and not a man,” Blake thundered, “he is a Lord Chancellor”. His letters and notebooks bristle with enervating pot-shots against the rich and powerful, and especially their servants among the intelligentsia, “the ignorant hirelings… who would, if they could, forever depress mental and prolong corporeal war.”

He railed against slavery, capital punishment (“Albions’ fatal tree”), child labour (“The Chimney Sweep”), and cruelty to animals (“A robin redbreast in a cage/Sets all heaven in a rage”). He decried state repression and political persecution (“Are such things done on Albion’s shore?”). And he is among the first poets in the language to move beyond sympathy for the plight of the poor to a denunciation of poverty itself:

Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land
Babes reduced to misery
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

To his contemporaries, Blake’s views on sex and marriage were probably the most shocking of all his heterodox opinions. He looked forward to a day when never again would “pale religious lechery call that virginity that wishes but acts not!” Blake knew Mary Wollestonecaft and was one of the very few male artists to respond creatively to the insights of the early feminists. In The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake wrestles, as few men before him, with the challenge of female sexual desire. Although his account of femininity (and even of rape) remains ambivalent, on the issue of women’s subordination within the institution of marriage, he was unequivocal:

She who burns with youth, and knows no fixed lot, is bound
In spells of law to one she loathes. And must she drag the chain
Of life in weary lust?

For Blake, the dark underside of marriage’s confounding of love with commerce was prostitution. “To catch virgin joy/ And brand it with the name of whore, and sell it in the night,/ In silence, ev’n without a whisper… ”. Unlike many of the evangelical Christians who campaigned against prostitution, Blake’s critique was never a puritanical one. He did not see prostitutes as morally tainted (“every whore was a virgin once”), but as victims of a system: “the oppressors of Albion in every city and village … buy his daughters that they may have power to sell his sons” .

Blake lived through the long nightmare of the Napoleonic wars, and (like his acquaintance, Tom Paine) he believed that war itself was the most inhumane expression of an unjust social order. “War is energy enslaved”. Like Paine, Blake also saw war as a ruse by the ruling elite who scheme “by war and stratagem to win the labour of the husbandman”. In a marvellous passage in Jerusalem, he evokes the horror of the press-gang:

We were carried away in thousands from London, and in tens
Of thousands from Westminster and Marybone in ships closed up;
Chained hand and foot, compelled to fight under the iron whips
Of our captains, fearing our officers more than the enemy.

Blake was a proud “son of Albion” but he believed that Albion (England) had demeaned itself in its pursuit of conquest and empire.

Is this thy soft family-love,
Thy cruel patriarchal pride,
Planting thy family alone,
Destroying all the world beside?

Nothing could be more alien to Blake than the jingoism with which some people belt out his “Jerusalem” hymn. “Man is not improved by the hurt of another. States are not improved at the expense of foreigners”. Assuming the spiritual voice of London, the city in which he spent all but three of his seventy years, Blake declares:

In my exchanges every land
Shall walk, and mine in every land
Mutual shall build Jerusalem
Both heart in heart and hand in hand

The French revolution was the defining event of Blake’s lifetime and he spent decades struggling to make sense of its lessons, seeking ways to salvage its liberating, egalitarian dynamism from the deformations of violence and despotism. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, composed between 1790 and 1793, during the height of Jacobin fervour among London’s artisans and labourers, every phrase is electric with revolutionary mischief. It is Blake at his most unapologetically subversive, with a dialectical momentum that embodies its own mottoes: “Exuberance is beauty” and “Without contraries is no progression”.

Along with Paine’s Rights of Man, Blake’s Marriage stands as the most vivid literary expression of the English Revolution that never was. Unlike The Rights of Man, the best selling publication of its time, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell exists in only a dozen complete copies, many of them painstakingly hand-coloured in Blake’s idiosyncratic method of “illuminated printing”.

Blake is one of the very few individuals to produce mould-breaking masterpieces in both literary and visual art. The Tate offers a breath-taking selection of his visions of suffering and exaltation, accusation and punishment, love and liberation, nearly all executed on a modest or even minute scale (and never in oil painting). Surely no one ever packed more epic emotion into a confined space. The gestures are grand, the forms simple, the lines sweeping and taut; at times the colouring achieves a gem-like translucence. Many artists of Blake’s day essayed fantastic and apocalyptic themes, but few of them succeeded in transcending the literal as Blake did. His engravings after Job or his water-colours after Dante are not illustrations or even interpretations but re-imaginings. They are precise, vivid, somehow directly apprehended by an eye that was always more than merely an eye.

The Tate also confirms Blake’s huge and unique achievement as a printmaker. For him, the techniques of the trade – engraving, etching, inking – were means of individual expression, not just commercial reproduction. Thanks to the Tate, mere mortals without access to the inner sanctum of Yale University’s collection of British art now have a rare chance to inspect close-up, and page by page, Blake’s Jerusalem, his last, longest and most intricate “prophetic book”.

Blake laboured on Jerusalem between 1804 and 1820, years when his public recognition, his political hopes, and his financial prospects were at low ebb. It’s hard to know how to classify these one hundred densely written, richly coloured pages, and perhaps it’s best not to try. Jerusalem may not work as a dramatic or epic poem, and much of it may be incomprehensible, but as a whole, and confronted in its physical uniqueness at the Tate, it is something special: a rich human testament, the embodiment of Blake’s personal and political frustrations, and his struggles to overcome them, to defend his independence as artist and thinker, and to re-imagine the possibilities of human liberation.

Much of Jerusalem can be read as an account of Blake’s battles with his own self-righteousness and resentment, his need for friendship and fear of betrayal, but at the same time it remains deeply engaged with politics, with the English crusade against France, the emergence of Irish demands for freedom, the cruelties of the factory system, the evils of militarism. Most importantly for those of us who come to Blake in the early twenty first century, Jerusalem is infused with Blake’s vision of a world purged of exploitation and tyranny, a society rejoicing in the infinite diversity and essential unity of human beings. The old revolutionary aspirations still burn bright, undimmed by decades of setbacks:

Let the slave, grinding at the mill, run out into the field;
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air…

Unlike the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem is a Christian work without equivocation. Blake’s Christianity, however, consisted in a rejection of just about all known Christian orthodoxy. “The outward ceremony is antichrist,” he declared, and “state religion” an “abomination”. Thanks to Jesus, “every man may converse with god and be a king and priest in his own house”. There was no place in Blake’s faith for hand-wringing piety:

Why stand we here trembling around
Calling on God for help; and not ourselves in whom God dwells
Stretching a hand to save the falling man…

Blake’s Jesus is decidedly the god of the poor and powerless, and is not to be found in any church: “I am not a god afar off, I am a brother and friend,” the Saviour whispers in the opening scene of Jerusalem, “Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me”. For Blake, Jesus was “the Real Man, the Imagination, which liveth for ever” and his disciples were sent “to overthrow religion and government”. This is a contentious Christianity, which knows no division of public and private, the spiritual and the social:

“Let every Christian, as much as in him lies, engage himself openly and publicly before all the world in some mental pursuit for the building up of Jerusalem”

In keeping with an antinomian tradition that EP Thompson has traced back to the English revolution, Blake believed that Jesus’s gospel of love had superseded the moral law of the Ten Commandments. As he grew older his Christianity was increasingly refined to an all-embracing, all-demanding credo – “mutual forgiveness of sins”. This was “the everlasting gospel”, the basis for personal and social transformation, a thorough-going and uncompromising Christian humanism.

In Blake’s complex and evolving thought, and especially in his arguments with Paine and “the Deists”, we find precursors to the current dialogue between Marxism and liberation theology. Blake celebrated the dissident republican spirit of Paine and his intellectual comrades, but he rejected their materialism and empiricism. Throughout his mature works, there is a sustained polemic against the mechanical world view of “Newton, Bacon and Locke”. He chided Paine, “the worker of miracles” for denying their reality: “Is it a greater miracle to feed five thousand men with five loaves than to overthrow all the armies of Europe with a small pamphlet?” Perhaps it was because Blake never shared the enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of human behaviour, in the inevitable triumph of reason, that he was able to retain and redefine the politics of “liberty” when so many erstwhile revolutionaries abandoned the cause and made peace with the establishment.

Over the years there have been repeated attempts to downplay Blake’s radicalism. It has been argued that in old age he rejected social reform and politics in general. But consider Blake’s last written remains, the annotations he jotted down, shortly before his death in August 1827, in the margins of a newly published translation of the Lord’s Prayer. His capacity for honest indignation clearly unsubdued, he savaged this “Tory translation” in which “God is only an Allegory of Kings & nothing Else” and looked forward to the day when “we have all things common among us.”

It would be an unconscionable betrayal of Blake to fail to note that the Tate exhibition is sponsored by Glaxo Wellcome, and that Glaxo Wellcome, as a major player in the global pharmaceutical industry, is guilty of numerous crimes against humanity. This industry routinely deploys its vast financial and political clout to prevent third world countries producing and selling cheap medicines. While investing in and profiting heavily from “lifestyle” drugs (viagra, baldness cures, etc.), it virtually ignores the life-destroying diseases of under-development, including malaria. The human need is immense and immediate, but there’s little profit in it.
The Blake sponsorship is a mere sliver of the more than $10 billion a year spent by the drugs barons on public relations, advertising and lobbying. Let’s hope that this time it proves a wasted investment. Anyone who really eyeballs Blake at the Tate will walk away more determined than ever to rid humanity of the likes of Glaxo Wellcome!