Thursday, May 31, 2007

London Highlights, Pt. 2

It would have been more appropriate if I had been scratching my head in this picture, because poet-painter William Blake (1757-1827; also buried at Bunhill Fields – see previous post) was an extremely enigmatic Englishman. One modern critic called him "far and away the greatest artist that Britain has ever produced", and he was recently voted number 38 in a BBC poll of the 100 greatest Britons.

Blake's parents were probably Moravians, but the spiritual outlook he embraced was ... umm ... somewhere south of orthodox: a potpourri of Swedenborgianism, Romanticism, mysticism and Greek mythology he concocted himself.

Blake claimed to have had visions of angels and other spirits from an early age, and to have received creative inspiration from the spirit world on a regular basis. His
contemporary, William Wordsworth, quipped, "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." (What is it about madmen that makes some of them brilliant poets?; cf. W. B. Yeats and the origin of his amazing but creepy poem, "The Second Coming".)

At times Blake's work seems to exalt biblical truth, even if only in a poetic, nonliteral sense. He created some stunning prints to accompany editions of Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (at right).

His poem "Jerusalem" is another case in point. It's based on the legend that Jesus actually visited the island of Britain early in his life – an apocryphal notion Blake seems to have believed was true. Despite its dubious historical basis, "Jerusalem" communicates a number of powerful themes in the abstract. In 1916, C. Hubert H. Parry wrote a stirring score to accompany Blake's poem, and a now-famous hymn and British anthem was born. Make of Blake what you will, but definitely handle him with care and caution!
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear; O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
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.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Thomas Merton pointed to William Blake as one of the major influences that brought him to Christianity. Of course, he was a Roman Catholic monk, so make of that what you will.


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