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(Unless stated otherwise, all text & pictures are © Lee Labuschagne, all rights reserved.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

1+1+1 for 365, day 32: The artist as a poet - and the poet as an artist

Do what you will, this world's a fiction and is made up of contradiction. - William Blake

Songs of innocence and of experience - William Blake

Was there ever another poet whose exquisite illustrations for his own poetry can equal that of William Blake? Similar to the stories of many other artists and authors, he did not become well known during his lifetime, but his work became very popular posthumously. He is remembered equally as poet, visionary artist, engraver, printmaker and as mystic and intellectual rebel of his times.

My copy of the illustrated Songs of Innocence and Experience was acquired a long time ago in London and contains lovely reproductions of this illustrated poems in the original size. I picked it up on a whim at a sale and have never been sorry that I bought it. 


On the other hand, my copy of the "Complete Writings" (until today covered in transparent plastic as we did with all our text books!) is filled with my notes in pencil from my student days. But sadly, was devoid of colour illustrations - it only has a few black and white illustrations in the entire volume of 944 pages.

As a side note, my English Lit professor had three framed prints in his tiny office that I can still see when I close my eyes as if it were yesterday. I can even recollect the aroma of pipe tobacco that hung in the air, because those were the days when smoking was not outlawed indoors and the prof smoked a pipe, although rarely in the company of students.

Blake was one of my professor's favourites and he explained that we would gather a better understanding of his writings if we also looked at his art.  I think that took much longer to register than he had hoped we would, because it was only in later years when I had the opportunity to travel, see some of the original artworks, read more widely and gather more life experience that some of what he was trying to teach us, became clearer in my own mind. 

But the prints in his office were a good start even then. These were were  two large ones of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and Blake's etching/watercolour Ancient of Days, and a smaller one of  the later Newton, also by Blake - a colour print with pen, ink and watercolour, where the compass is again used as in the Ancient of Days. 

The highly creative Blake started seeing "visions" even as a young boy and whatever may have been the cause of these visions, they fuelled his rich imagination that found expression in everything he created. His interests both in writing and art also started at a young age and that, together with his training both as artist and as skilled craftsman (engraver and printmaker), helped to shape him into someone who created unique works of art that combined poetry and prose with art - most notably and memorably in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, the allegorical Europe, A Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen (containing some of his views on cosmology and the origins of man),  his prophetic and major work of prose called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, (reminiscent in theme of Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost), his allegorical and prophetic poem The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and others.

In these works the words and illustrations become part of a creative whole and this is, I believe, part of the reason why his work is so admired even today. Whether one agrees or even understands some of the ideas he expressed in his prophetic and mystic writing, some of his more accessible creations such as the ever-popular Songs of Innocence and Experience are beautiful both for the words and the visual delight.

Blake also illustrated the work of numerous other authors, although many of the projects were not completed.  This included the poems of Mary Shelley, Thomas Gray, Milton, Chaucer and most famously the large project to illustrate Dante's Inferno.

I like Alfred Kazin's description of Blake* as "a lyric poet interested chiefly in ideas, and a painter who did not believe in nature. He was a commercial artist who was a genius in poetry, painting, and religion. He was a libertarian obsessed with God; a mystic who reversed the mystical pattern, for he sought man as the end of his search. He was a Christian who hated the churches; a revolutionary who abhorred the materialism of the radicals."

Born in 1757, Blake started studying art at a youngster and became apprenticed to engraver James Basire at age 14. His later creative style and ideas as artist were influenced at least in part by copying images and making drawings of artworks in gothic churches. Later (from 1779) continued his studies as artist at the then still young Royal Academy of Art.

Due to his antagonism to the first president of the Academy, the painter Joshua Reynolds, his stay at the Academy lasted only a year (however, he later exhibited his work at the Academy). Blake was influenced strongly by artists such as Raphael, Dürer, and Michaelangelo and collected prints of their works, whereas Reynolds admired more fashionable painters at the time, specifically Rubens. But by all accounts the differences between the young Blake and Reynolds was not so much only in terms of the artists that they admired, but rather because Blake rebelled against the general academic atmosphere which he found less than ideal for his creativity.

Whatever the artistic merits of their individual preferences, somehow I am fascinated by this detail of Blake's life, because it reminds me of a dilemma that faces so many of us. For haven't many creative people with an individual mindset, through the ages and until today, had similar experiences while studying or in the workplace when confronted with an intellectual or philosophical clash of culture?

Blake's literary friends included Thomas Paine and Mary & Percy Shelley.  In intellectual circles he was often thought of as eccentric and even as outright crazy: his unconventional ideas and mysticism did not make him a popular figure among the literary and artistic establishment. Nevertheless he had a notable influence on romantic poets and artists that followed, among others because of such themes as innocence and experience, good and evil and his imagery inspired by classic mythology and his own religious visions.

But back to the book under discussion.  The Songs of Innocence appeared first in 1789, and Songs of Experience five years later. It was only later that the two collections were included in the same volume. Like all his other works, this did not bring him either fame or fortune during his lifetime.  The poems are often deceptively simple in their language, but carry deep meaning.  Most of us can recite at least a few lines from "The Tyger", which I reproduce in its entirety below.  The illustrations are shaped by the words, and perhaps also shaped the words.

Whether one agrees with Blake's philosophies and interpretations about religious and other or not, does not matter.  His poems are lovely creations that can be read on different levels, like all good poetry.  But unlike most other poets, he also gives us lovely clues to their meaning in the illustrations that are so closely woven in with his words.

The Tyger (from Songs of Experience)

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
in the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dead grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaved with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

*  Read Kazin's interesting essay here.

Text: © Lee Labuschagne - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Instead of including one of my photographs, I thought it more appropriate to include a few of the double page spreads from my copy of  Songs of Innocence and Experience.    It is a 1977 edition from Oxford University Press - a "reproduction in the original size of William Blake's Illuminated Book Songs of Innocence and Experience with and introduction and commentary by Sir Geoffrey Keynes."
I'm not sure if a reprint is still available, but there must be other similar editions.  I'd certainly suggest that anyone who is thinking of buying  volume of these poems, should invest in something similar with full-colour illustrations.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Yes, few modern poets still write with his skill.

    I agree, his artwork is worth preserving and enjoying. It makes me think of the way some children's books have become famous for their illustrations as much as for their writing.

    J R


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