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Happy Birthday William Blake

November 28, 2013


Happy Birthday Mr Blake.

I’ve belatedly realised that it’s also John Bunyan’s birthday also.  He’s older.  They’re actually buried together in the same  cemetery.  Yards apart.    If invited to both birthday parties on the same day, I don’t think many people would hesitate too long about picking which one to attend.

Most everybody loves Blake, as indeed do I, though I’m not sure I’m a big fan of his poetry as such.  It occurs to me that people want Blake’s poetry to be better than it is because they are already in love with Blake, or at least, with an idea of Blake.  I can’t lift those words away from this idealised Blake and force them to make a case for themselves on their own terms.

Blake was, of course, the first graphic novelist.  He did not write books – he made them.  The paintings make sense in terms of the supporting text and the text dances and weaves its way around the images – a copperplate font tangling and losing itself among the fronds of mysterious and meaningful foliage.  The paintings without the text look like prog-rock album covers.  The text without the paintings seems stilted and unconvincing.  It doesn’t sing.  Editions of Blake’s work that properly integrate text with image are expensive.

This is a man who used to wander around his back garden with his wife stark naked pretending to be Adam and Eve.  This is a man who advised Thomas Paine to skip the country.  There is, incidentally a television play about this encounter that is sort of  worth revisiting.  It’s called “In Lambeth” by Jack Shepherd, and here is a clip:

There are people who are orthodox and functional, people who are orthodox and dysfunctional, people who are heterodox and dysfunctional and people who are heterodox and functional.  Blake was in this fourth class.

For a while he was a Swedenborgian – before he realised that his problem wasn’t with Swedenborg but rather with being and “ian” or and “ist” of any kind.

His pantheon of warrig deities was not a stable set of characters.  His supernatural cast list resembled not so much a family tree as a flow chart.  Sons will (or must) overthrow fathers, but they will themselves be overthrown.  All revolutions risk calcifying, reimposing the same structures and redeploying the same terms.  There is no purpose to proclaiming a revolutionary republic if the energy that swept away the corrupt monarchy is wasted or concentrated and repressed.  When it comes to revolutions therefore, William Blake decides, like Pete Townsend, that he won’t get fooled again.  Although Blake is therefore impossible to pin down, this very restlessness means that Blake is the one great revolutionary figure in a revolutionary age who lives to old age without betraying his principles.  Blake manages to never sell out without succumbing to tuberculosis or yachting accidents.

All hierarchies, all lines of succession and entitlement are threatened by Blake, for who the dynamism of desire and the urgency of love need to form the basis of human co-relation.  Ultimately the idea of Blake produces an intellectual legacy that is cognate with a cuddlier Nietzsche, a more colourful Freud, a Foucault with hair who could draw.


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Ah Blake and Bunyan – same birthday – same burial plot.

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