My Business Is to Create
Blake's Infinite Writing
By ERIC G. WILSON
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Eric G. Wilson
All right reserved.
BE AN ARTIST
Only hours from his death on the evening of August 12, 1827, William Blake, though exhausted from his long struggle against an illness of the liver, could not stop creating. He had spent most of his sixty-nine years making exuberant art, in image as well as word, and his demanding muse would not let him rest. Inspiration yet burned within, in spite of the closing darkness. Blake refused to put down the tools of his craft.
A few days before becoming bed ridden, he had spent his last shilling on a pencil. He required it for his final work, a series of illustrations for The Divine Comedy. Even though he knew that he wouldn't complete his drawings of Dante's paradise—he was feeble and feverish, with a chronically upset stomach and yellowing skin—he continued to compose. He was bent on inventing until he could move no more.
This last desperate devotion was to a calling that had probably killed him. His lifelong engraving practice had exposed him to noxious coppery fumes damaging to his immune system. Lethal as well as enlivening, his muse, in exchange for genius, had exacted his breath. Blake was art's martyr.
And so, committed to the last to the flame consuming him, his joy outweighing the pain, he continued, as he lay on his deathbed, to sketch, driven to convert, for one final spell, his quick thoughts into lively lines. But his brain soon slowed, beginning its descent into the inevitable dimness, and his competent hand faltered. Now, he believed, was the hour. He would have to leave his configurations of heaven undone. He set his instruments aside, his now-dull pencil and his paper riddled with shades.
Faint, he turned toward those attending him, among whom was his wife Catherine, his faithful partner for forty-five years. He saw her crying. Maybe what happened next was a final surge of affection, or perhaps a desperate hope to make the moment stay. Whatever the reason, Blake's haze cleared. His mind revived. He recovered his pencil and paper, reports say, and exclaimed to her, "Stay, Kate! Keep just as you are—I will draw your portrait—for you have ever been an angel to me." This picture he did complete, though it is now lost.
Now finished and feeling the fatigue return, he again laid down his implements, this time for good. He silently said farewell to his earthly exertions—all those pictures and poems, forged in visionary fury—and relaxed, ready for his flesh's demise. As his consciousness gently waned, he sang hymns of his own design, about the eternal bliss to which his spirit would soon rise. He expired at six o'clock, his lyrics still trilling in his head. Catherine remained calm. Perhaps she believed that her life would change but little; she had once said of her husband, "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in Paradise."
* * *
Blake's imagination was his Eden. As he wrote to a friend after he became seriously ill: "I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble and tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays."
Blake had good reason for this celebration; he had since he was a small boy relied on his creativity for his true sustenance. When he was four, he saw God's head in the window. He screamed, but took this sight as a sign of his destiny: to behold undying powers and fashion forms to reveal their energies. A few years later, this visionary prospect was reinforced when a spirit said to him, "Blake, be an artist & nothing else. In this there is felicity."
The youth wasted no time in fulfilling the summons. Daily drawing his perceptions and reading sacred verse assiduously, Blake trained himself to become a creator, and not in any humble sense. He envisioned himself as a poetic equal of Isaiah and Ezekiel (he would later describe a dinner party with both) and as a visual artist on the same level with Michelangelo (with whom he once conversed) and the German engraver Albrecht Dürer.
There was reason for this boldness. Growing up in a family of nonconformist Protestants who had little use for formal education, the boy was encouraged to follow his genius, no matter how idiosyncratic. He read the Bible often, fiercely, with no regard for doctrine, eventually viewing the scriptures not as an archive of divine directives but as a sublime poem. If Isaiah and Ezekiel could transform their spiritual perceptions into heroic verse, if Jesus could find striking parables for the God within, why couldn't William Blake do the same? Didn't the book of Numbers say that God wanted all of his people to be prophets? Didn't Jesus show what a true prophet is: an authoritative and iconoclastic maker of words?
By the time he was a teenager, Blake was well on his way to composing his own holy works. Complementing his Bible reading with studies in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, he wrote accomplished verse in several genres, showing special aptitude for the brief lyric and the seasonal ode. The poems he wrote between the ages of twelve and twenty-one were published in 1783, in a captivating volume entitled Poetical Sketches.
But Blake wasn't only consuming and crafting verse during his teen years. He was also learning art, engraving in particular, under the tutelage of James Basire, to whom he was apprenticed in 1772. Because the sensitive and solitary boy didn't fit in with the other more rowdy apprentices, Basire kindly sent him to Westminster Abbey to draw the statues reposing in the gloomy corridors. There among the stately sepulchers, Blake had more episodes in the spirit world. He saw long-dead monks shuffling through the stones, intoning chorales.
In the abbey Blake learned the Gothic style, with its religious focus, clear lines, intricate detail, and antiquarian feel. His tutelage in this technique resulted in his first engraving of note, Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion, completed in 1773, during his sixteenth year. The piece, influenced by Michelangelo's Crucifixion of St. Peter, shows the legendary figure, thought to have brought the Holy Grail to England, standing on a bleak cliff, with the dark sea behind him, in a pose of melancholy brooding.
* * *
These early successes launched Blake into a rich creative life. The man lived to make art, original art, mainly in the medium of a peculiar kind of illuminated book, in which unexpected words and surreal images enter into weird, mutually enlightening conversations. He best encapsulated the driving force of his being in Jerusalem: "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's; / I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create." Such revolutionary production, as Blake knew, required nothing less than a lifetime of work. "To create a little flower is the labour of ages." Without art, the world is nothing: "Degrade first the Arts if you'd Mankind degrade." Through art, one can become God: "Jesus Christ ... is the only God," and this God is "Man in the Spiritual or Imaginative Vision." Not only a consummate artist, Blake's Jesus is also the creator within each of us, the Christ whose revelation is poetry and painting.
This—and not the four biblical texts—is the "everlasting gospel" of William Blake. All of us are artists in potentia, and when we bring to fruition our imaginations, we convert the fallen earth into a paradise where the human virtues flourish: love and charity and forgiveness.
Living is creating, and conforming is death. "The imagination ... is the Human Existence itself." Why is imagination, why is creation, so vital for Blake, essential for becoming human? What is imagination? What is creation? How do we create? Blake had answers for these questions both in word and deed, answers that serve as powerful teachings for accomplished writers and aspiring ones.
* * *
In a Harlem apartment in 1948, some years before he would become the foremost poet of the Beat Movement, Allen Ginsberg, twenty-two years old, was relaxing in bed, languidly masturbating, and reading Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. The young man was suffering a psychological crisis, serious enough to put him in a mental hospital, and he was solacing himself with a combination of autoeroticism and visionary poetry.
Soon after climax, Ginsberg heard a strange voice. He first took it to be God's, but then concluded that it was that of William Blake himself. It was reciting "Ah, Sunflower," one of the poems of experience, which contains these lines:
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done.
In the intonations of the dead poet now alive, these words on the longing for light resonated with Ginsberg; they animated his soul, and transported it to a paradise enduringly solar. He felt, for the first time in months, vibrant, as though the eternal currents of life, bright effusions of the divine, were vitalizing his every fiber.
Communing with the potency that had inspirited Blake, his hero, Ginsberg flowed over with enthusiasm. He rushed out to the fire escape and rapped on his neighbors' window. When it slid up, he shouted, "I've seen God!" The glass quickly closed. Then, still hoping for sympathy, Ginsberg called his psychoanalyst, collect, on the pay phone. The doctor refused the charges. His excitement undiminished, Ginsberg hurried back to the apartment and pulled from the shelves one visionary volume after another—Plato, St. John, Plotinus—and discovered that he now possessed fresh sight. "I was able to read," he reported later, "almost any text and see all sorts of divine significance in it."
Ginsberg later called this episode—a galvanizing concurrence of the erotic, the poetic, and the spiritual—his "Blake Vision," and claimed that it disclosed to him his calling: to be himself a revelatory poet, ripping away veils of prudery and hypocrisy to show the sacredness of all existence, sex as well as religion, body and soul alike, the mole in addition to the eagle. Based on his epiphany, he and Jack Kerouac proclaimed their "new vision": "Since art is merely and ultimately self-expressive, we conclude that the fullest art, the most individual, uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression of art is true expression and the true art."
Blake affected several other writers in a similar way, stoking their spirits, their locutions, and, sometimes, their loins. ("Energy," Blake wrote, "is Eternal Delight"—and not just intellectual energy: all energy.) This list of literary Blakeans is august. It includes Swinburne, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Aldous Huxley, Hilda Doolittle, Kathleen Raine, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Alicia Ostriker, Salman Rushdie, J. G. Ballard, and science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. But Blake impacted other kinds of artists as well: painters like John Ruskin, Dora Carrington, and Joe Coleman; composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten; pop songwriters such as Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith; filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Jim Jarmusch; and underground graphic artists like Alan Moore and R. Crumb.
Blake encouraged all these creators to throw off oppressive traditions and follow their most personal experiences and desires, the more radical the better. The self-reliant voice is the muse of true work, original art. Accompanying this idea of singular creativity, sui generis, beyond imitation, is often a celebration of spontaneity, authenticity, naturalness. For many, these characteristics are the markers of a composition's brilliance. In contrast, pieces that appear to be derivative or studied or ornate are frequently deemed inferior. This distinction has almost become common sense: originality equals genius; imitation is mediocrity. As a quick amazon.com survey of writing handbooks shows, innovation has basically become synonymous with art itself.
But what does it mean to be creative? Isn't it possible that "creativity," like "love" or "beauty," has been used so often and in so many contexts that it's dissolved into nebulousness? When we hear the word, we might get a vague, warm feeling. We might imagine solitary, poverty-stricken artists struggling to forge things not yet seen in the universe. We might see a woodland poet scribbling poems as freely as a cardinal tweets its notes. But when asked to define creativity, we're hard pressed and likely to just toss out other hazy generalities, such as "inventiveness."
The term is fuzzy, of course, but we should try for clarity. Blake would certainly have us do so, and with extreme specificity. He believed that "To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit."
* * *
Blake was convinced that "Without Contraries is no progression." He devoted his days not to tranquility but "Mental" warfare. With life, so with art: Blake's printing technique required that he figure his words and images backwards on copper plates, and so his compositions were conflicted, tense gatherings of opposed directions.
Given this antagonistic bent, Blake couldn't let himself view creativity as a simple matter of non conformity, spontaneity, or naturalness. For him the creative is much more vexed and spirited, a dialectical site where powerful polarities collide, coincide, and merge only to challenge each other once again, perpetually. True imagination flourishes in combat.
Blake's most prevalent antinomies come quickly to mind: memory and inspiration, innocence and experience, particular and general, energy and form, imagination and reason. On the surface, it seems that the oppositions might fall easily into ranks: surely innocence is better than experience, and imagination, for a poet, superior to reason. However, when we look deeper, we find that the poles are vitally interdependent. Let us take, for instance, inspiration, one of Blake's primary terms for creativity, and its dependence upon memory, tradition.
* * *
This is the great problem for all who wish to create: how to transcend a past, both personal and cultural, that has shaped one's habits of perception. Even if there are such things as innate ideas—and Blake believed there were, once saying that man is "Born like a Garden ready Planted & Sown"—history still informs the development of these concepts. A garden is bound by its climate. Blake himself accedes this point when he writes, "As a man is So he Sees," suggesting that one's character, at least partially formed by environment, delimits his vision.
Blake's term for how the past determines the imagination is "ratio." In "There Is No Natural Religion," he claims that "ratio" is inseparable from empiricism, the theory that we know the world through our senses. Scientists since Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton have embraced this theory, maintaining that we establish physical laws through observation. The primary method of observing is induction, reasoning from particular to general. In this model, an experience is only valid, only meaningful, if it relates to a pre-established general category, if it corroborates or revises an authenticated scientific conclusion. Any encounter that can't be connected to an idea that the collective holds true is insignificant, no matter how ravishing. Banished from this empirical realm are all of our exquisitely intangible intuitions and those uncanny glimpses of the soul's striving: the epiphany during the sun-drenched dawn after the ice storm, when the world is aflame; the omen, on a day of long-awaited homecoming, of a sudden abundance of robins.
Scientists might through years of study agree that a certain number of recurring traits make a robin, a robin. The scientific definition of the robin, necessarily abstract, shapes how the culture perceives birds possessing some or all of the semantic characteristics. When an individual schooled in this typology sees such a feathery thing, he immediately, often without thinking, matches the creature to the preexisting concept of "robinness." Any portion of the fowl that doesn't correspond is ignored. This is the result of the societal ratios that constitute "common sense."
The "ratio" melds the present to the past. It dwells with the "Daughters of Memory." It can be, when too doggedly held, deadly, flattening metamorphosis to monotony. Newton can become the nemesis, more satanic than an imp.
In Blake's eyes, when the "Philosophic and Experimental" prevail, that is, when empirical principles hold sway, everything stands still, dies, and all we do is "repeat the same dull round over again." Blake's description of this redundancy and his liberation from it is striking. He claims that when he witnesses the sun, he doesn't apprehend a disc that resembles a "Guinea" (a coin) but rather "an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'" The guinea sun is the average perception; if all human encounters with the sun were gathered and classified according to similarity, then the average would be a hovering disc. To waiver from this mean, to catch sight of angels, is to be labeled foolish or insane.
Not only retrospective, the ratio is narcissistic: "He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only." Adhering to the ratio—which can be made up of personal biases as well as those of the collective—one can't look beyond a mirror composed of all he's formerly learned. This reflecting glass expands and surrounds and encloses, becoming a solipsistic prison: shut off from the sun, repeating with the same reflections, stale with despair.
Blake's fear of retrospective, egocentric seeing, of his tendency to fixate on memories of encounters with the material world, sometimes made him go to extremes, as when he demeans nature: "Natural Objects always did & now do Weaken deaden & obliterate Imagination in Me Imagination is the Divine Vision not of The World nor of Man nor from Man as he is a Natural Man but only as he is a Spiritual Man Imagination has nothing to do with Memory."
Blake made other such pronouncements against nature, like when he criticized Wordsworth for overvaluing matter and memory, but he also, and more frequently, viewed the particulars of the visible world as points of luminous infinity.
Excerpted from My Business Is to Create by ERIC G. WILSON Copyright © 2011 by Eric G. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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