More to the point, I am thinking about what the modern world would make of a William Blake. As a premise, I should say that my thinking is colored by an understanding of modern life (at least in the developed world) as more thoroughly circumscribed, less given to chaos and uncertainty, than the world in which Blake lived. Don’t we put our young visionaries on Prozac, and hound them with well-meaning social workers into becoming model citizens?
Blake apparently had visions from a very young age, telling his parents at age four that he could see God pressing His face against the window and, at nine, that he could see a troupe of angels sitting in the branches of a tree during a walk in the country. In adulthood, he claimed to have seen the soul of his brother, as he lay dying, rise out of his body and ascend skyward, clapping for joy the whole time. He claimed for the rest of his life that his brother’s spirit regularly visited him in dreams (and sometimes while awake), and even that his brother’s spirit had instructed him on how to set the type face for the first edition of Songs of Innocence.
What would we do with such a child in modern America? Heavily medicate him, certainly, but would collective society stamp the genius out of him entirely? Could it? Apparently Blake left school in his teens because he felt that the pressures of a formal, rational education were suffocating the blossoming artist in him. He died a pauper, true. But he was allowed to make that decision IN HIS TEENS, and go on to pursue an unstructured, thoroughly unconventional life. If he had submitted (or rather, been made to submit) to the daily grind, would he have ever produced such volumes of singularly beautiful, if enigmatic, poetry that have been such a treasure to successive generations?
Indeed, he seems to have formed an entire ethic against the idea of submitting to the dominance of rationality, and preferred instead to indulge in a life led by imagination, in which all things have a deeper, more profound significance than the casual meanings that we give them. One of my favorite of his little maxims, and the first one I was ever conscious of hearing (in the 1991 movie The Doors) is –
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” – from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
What a huge force in the shaping of the Western intellectual tradition has the pursuit of, and the dedication to, the unconventional life always been! And who can bring to society such brilliant new inspirations but those who live truly outside the box? Do we hobble the dynamic growth of our finer culture in the West with our zealous attachment to ideals of middle-class success, and has it always been this way?
Here is a nice poem of his that I would like to have in an illustrated manuscript, as a poster to put by the front door.
To The Evening Star
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And the lion glares thro’ the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flocks are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thine influence.