SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 200 July/August 2016

The radical William Blake

It was rather amusing to read, in the recent Liverpool mayoral election booklet, the candidate for the racist English Democrats calling for William Blake’s poem, Jerusalem, to be adopted as the national anthem. It gives an indication of what passes for a cultural level among these reactionary backwoodsmen!

Jerusalem is from the preface to Blake’s epic, Milton: A Poem (1804-10), which was largely ignored at the time. As Jerusalem became famous, however, the interpretation of it moved further and further from Blake’s beliefs. Like other radicals, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, William Blake embraced the American and French revolutions in the second half of the 18th century. He celebrated the overthrow of tyranny in his art and wore the red Phrygian cap as a symbol of Jacobin sympathies.

With political reaction setting in, Blake became vulnerable to attack from church-and-king mobs and repressive laws, so in 1800 he left Lambeth, south London, and moved to Felpham, Sussex. Feeling isolated, and threatened by a forthcoming trial for sedition, for which he could have faced the death penalty (he was later acquitted), Blake returned to London in 1803. He found the city in the grip of hysteria over the imminent war with France. Blake feared that young people in England were going to be sent to their slaughter and believed that wars were the means by which tyrants crushed resistance. He expressed these emotions in Jerusalem and other works.

Jerusalem is not a patriotic poem. The upbeat tempo added in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, and Edward Elgar’s powerful orchestration, really do not fit. Nonetheless, it was often sung at labour movement rallies and the rights to the poem were owned by the women’s suffragette movement until 1928.

Blake’s Jerusalem is imbued, in fact, with bitter irony. Blake asks four questions, and the answer to each is a definite ‘no’. Christ’s feet never trod in England and the lamb of God did not roam around it, either. The Holy Spirit cannot be discerned in London fog and there was certainly no hint of a Jerusalem-like paradise in the dark satanic mills of early industrialisation.

Blake raged against repression, writing in the poem, London (1794), of the self-censorship of the "mind-forged manacles" that held down protest. He called as much for mental as physical resistance to create a ‘new Jerusalem’ – by consistent and revolutionary struggle:

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.

He satirised contemporary quasi-religious nationalism:

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!

Jerusalem’s images of war were not aimed at revolutionary France, but against those seeking to prevent a possible new world being created. The satanic mills may refer to the large Albion flour mills, near Blake’s home, which were burned down because they threatened to put smaller millers out of business. So was Jerusalem an anthem to anti-capitalist arson? When Blake wrote about mills elsewhere, he often used them as a metaphor for institutionalised religion which, like Karl Marx after him, he considered was a natural ally of capitalism and monarchy.

His message was clear enough. Religion, war, kings and mills were bad, bright air and sunshine, good. He had no time for the Glastonbury myths of St Joseph of Arimathea and such inventions by monastery spin doctors to attract pilgrims to religious sites. Other lines described the god of the established church – the following, from Blake’s Notebook:

Old Nobodaddy up aloft farted and belched and coughed,

And said I love hanging and quartering

Every bit as well as war and slaughtering…

When Blake died he was mocked in a notorious obituary in Leigh Hunt’s newspaper, The Examiner, as an "unfortunate lunatic". William Wordsworth and Robert Southey thought Blake was "perfectly mad". Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of very few who had read a rare copy of Blake’s Songs, considered him gifted but eccentric. Coleridge noted to a friend: "You perhaps smile at my calling another poet a mystic; but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake, apo- or rather ana-calyptic poet and painter".

Blake was almost completely forgotten when he died penniless in 1827, in a tiny two-room apartment in Fountain Court, a narrow alley off Strand, London. He had sold less than 30 copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794). Among his prophetic books, The French Revolution (1791) was never published for fear of prosecution.

Just four copies of Milton: A Poem were printed in his lifetime, and only five of Jerusalem. Two fully coloured originals survive. Blake’s surviving followers, from the original young admirers known as the ‘Ancients’, painters John Linnell and Samuel Palmer, assisted Alexander Gilchrist in creating a resurgence of interest in Blake through the publication of Life of William Blake (1863). Gilchrist described the quality and breadth of Blake’s work as a commercial illustrator and engraver, and as having a wide and varied range of contemporaries – not a life of cultural isolation at all.

Among countless others, Blake engraved research papers for the Royal Society, children’s books by Mary Wollstonecraft, Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Physiognomy, Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poem The Botanic Garden, the Wedgwoods’ Pottery Catalogue, John Stedman’s antislavery Narrative… Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (noted for the intensely powerful and sombre engravings), John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the Book of Job, and Robert Blair’s The Grave, with its famous frontispiece of the trumpet-blasting inverted airborne angel of the resurrection.

Jacob Bronowski was the first to argue that Blake’s language was not of an Old Testamentary mystic, but of a political revolutionary using obscure symbolism because he feared prosecution for sedition. (See: William Blake, A Man Without A Mask, 1943) Throughout his life, Blake remained rooted in the social, political and economic conditions of his time. The overtly political tones of The French Revolution (1791) were echoed in Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), America (1793) and Europe (1794).

Bronowski prefaced his discussion of Blake’s ‘seditious writings’, describing the economic and political nature of Britain’s response to the American and French revolutions, outlining the backdrop to Blake’s works. Blake’s message in the prophetic books – especially Milton and Jerusalem – reflected the social war the industrial revolution waged against the working classes. It is not possible to grasp the sense of those poems without understanding the upheavals of the day.

Instead of some strange ahistorical figure, William Blake was a poet whose prophetic books should read as social criticism. Bronowski’s book has its flaws but, above all, it rebuffed the misconception that Blake was a mystical visionary, and carefully uncovered the social and political orientation of Blake’s thought out of his extensive writings.

Roy Farrar

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