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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 12:15 GMT
An everyman's mystic
Detail from William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, courtesy of Tate Britain
Detail from William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, courtesy of Tate Britain

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

From penniless obscurity to recognition 250 years after his birth as one of the greatest Britons, how did a mystical outsider like William Blake win a place in our hearts?

William Blake was a bit of a nutter, to employ the vernacular of a recent prime minister.

Or at least so some of his contemporaries suspected. While possibly falling short of diagnosable mental illness, there was always a degree of suspicion over a man who supposedly claimed to have seen an angel in a tree in Peckham Rye.

By the time the painter, poet, engraver and philosopher died in 1827, he was short of cash and destined to be forgotten.

Detail from William Blake's Newton, courtesy of Tate Britain

But something strange has happened over the course of the last 180 years. Blake the marginal and Blake the crank have entered the art and literature establishment's pantheon.

Blake the painter can be found on permanent display in the Tate Britain. And it is not hard to read his name in a list that also features Constable, Turner and Gainsborough.

His poetry is taught in schools. How many children over the years have complained that "what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry" can't possibly rhyme?

And even to those non-poetry, non-art-loving members of the public, Blake is still a towering figure, making it to number 38 on the BBC's public vote for the 100 Greatest Britons. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Constable and Turner did not make the list.

Blazing patriotism

The root of this popularity must lie at least in part in Blake's penning of the poem that became the hymn Jerusalem during World War I. Every couple of years somebody suggests making this song, with its "chariot of fire" and "bow of burning gold" into a "national anthem" for England.

It is beloved of left-wingers, for the supposed social reform inherent in the "dark Satanic mills" reference, and right-wingers who see it as the ultimate piece of blazing patriotism. Sports fans like its first line reference to feet.

I found them abhorrent and fascinating and comforting and frightening at the same time
Jack Shepherd
On Blake's paintings

But there is no easily discernible political message within the poem or indeed much of Blake's other work, says Shirley Dent, co-author of Radical Blake.

"It is both a reactionary and radical poem. He means many things to many people. There is something in the poetry itself that is contradictory.

"You have got everybody from the Jarrow marchers to the WI singing this hymn."

Those who want to claim Blake as a hyper patriot should be aware that when he conceived it he was awaiting trial for supposedly making insulting remarks about the king and praising Napoleon to a soldier.

Complex mythology

Beyond Jerusalem, there is a certain amount of love for William Blake as a classic English radical, someone who was the son of a hosier, came from the wrong class to be an artist and trained as a humble engraver. His image as being outside the mainstream has boosted his appeal.

His work embraces a complex mythology involving struggling supernatural characters like Urizen and Orc, fantastic visions of rural England, allusions to English legends, criticism of slavery, and a healthy helping of Christian mysticism.

Actor and playwright Jack Shepherd was drawn to the radical quality of Blake's work at an early age.

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea, circa 1819-20, courtesy of Tate Britain
Blake had a complex mythology underpinning most of his work

"Blake had an untutored intelligence. He wasn't constrained by the academic thinking of the time. He was one of those rare people that had an all-embracing vision.

"It started off when I was a kid and the Baptist church we went to had Blake pictures on the walls. I found them abhorrent and fascinating and comforting and frightening at the same time. I loved hating them. They made an enormous impact. I was drawn to Blake's dangerous philosophy."

Jason Whittaker, author of William Blake and the Myths of Britain, says there has now arisen a "Blake brand".

"Blake's status as an establishment figure in art and literature only really came to pass since World War II.

"A lot of people who are enthusiastic about him are enthusiastic without ever reading the poetry or looking at the art."

His strong Christian beliefs and hard-to-decipher mysticism might lead one to believe that Blake would jar with this secular age. But this is not the case.

He couldn't draw properly and his figures are all wobbly
Waldemar Januszczak
Art critic

Blake's outlook chimes with the modern belief that traditional structures of thought must give way to a kind of hyper-individualism.

Whittaker suggests Blake's words "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's" appeal to the modern reader.

"People like him because he gives them a sense of themselves as being slightly radical," suggests Dent. "It's almost a badge of your boho credentials, they do like that idea of Blake as the outsider.

"You almost see the poetry taking a back seat to the attempt to project images or your own particular politics on it."

'Godlike status'

Whittaker agrees that "anyone who has eccentric or idiosyncratic tendencies themselves finds their own Blake".

As well as the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Blake has been claimed as an early ecologist and an inspiration for drug-fuelled drop outs like the Doors.

But not everybody is a fan. Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak cannot fathom "the Godlike status he seems to have achieved".

Detail from William Blake's Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, courtesy of Tate Britain

"He couldn't draw properly and his figures are all wobbly. We love great eccentrics and particularly early ones.

"In this day and age we are very used to the idea of the eccentric artist who doesn't follow the rules. Modern audiences have projected back a lot of their tolerances and preferences onto another age and see him as a pioneering wild man of art.

"The man was a lunatic. He claimed to speak to angels. In this day and age we lock up people like that. A lot of his stuff is exceedingly boring."

It is clear Blake had his off moments, Whittaker concedes.

"Every so often Blake can't write. He struggles with syntax and grammar, the basics of writing. He wrote duff poetry occasionally; he painted duff paintings."

Extreme mental states

But it is wrong to brand Blake psychologically disturbed, Whittaker argues, despite the academics that have posited manic depression or other clinical conditions. Sightings of angels and so forth were merely metaphorical.

"To say he was mad is too simplistic. He may have, like a lot of artists, suffered from degrees of relatively extreme mental states."

And as for suggestions of druggie iconhood?

"He had no connections with that world. Apart from the odd pint of porter, there's no evidence he took drugs at all," Whittaker insists.

But Blake's ascent into the establishment canon might have been sabotaged from the off because of his ambivalence towards the poem that later became Jerusalem. It was deleted from later editions of the poem Milton.

"Blake didn't hold the work in particularly high regard," says Whittaker.

Blake's Doors of Perception is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1530 GMT on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The William Blake: "I still go on / Till the Heavens & Earth are Gone" exhibition is at Tate Britain in Room 8 until 1 June 2008. Admission is free.

Send us your comments using the form below.

Blake is one of the most visionary figures of English history. He was a genius, a man beyond conformity, a person who forged his own way irrespective of the established views of the time. Yes, he may have been off his rocker, but what prophet or genius was not? To produce something revolutionary and lasting you have to 'see' and 'believe' beyond ordinary mortals.
Michael Quarrinton, Corby, northants

Waldemar Januszczak is absolutely right - Blake and his dubious work have been hugely over-rated for the sake of one uncharacteristic poem, by an ignorant modern audience who have historically superimposed onto him many convictions, ideals and certainly talents which he simply did not possess. When I studied English at Oxford University in the late 1970's I was aghast to find Blake, and his later fellow-mystic G.M. Hopkins, on the compulsory syllabus, at the expense of Tennyson, Browning, T.S. Eliot and Philip Larkin. If people want a new English national hero - or simply to raise the profile of a truly radical, intense, weird and fascinating English eccentric, who also wrote reams of gloriously over-the-top, never-imitated, lyrical poetry, they need look no further than the Victorian A.C. Swinburne - another disgraced anti-establishment figure, who despite his sublime poetic genius gets nowhere near the pretentious, politically-correct modern university syllabus today.
Craig D, Birmingham, England

William Blake was a native Christian mystic. That he had visions is totally within that frame of reference and should be respected. It is unfair to describe his drawing and poetry as `duff'; some of the imagery grips your attention forever. He was struggling to say something but could not quite get it all out. A good, simple man!
Nigel Wilson, Buckingham UK

Blake, Turner and Hogarth, now there's a sublime mixture of London born, London bred men of any millennia. But from this trio, and writing as a London born man (for to truly appreciate them you must be of London) I select Blake as my hero. Blake is the very essence of fire, water and light, period.
Ted Knight, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UK

I understood that Blake was a Gnostic, rather than a Christian? While some people claim that gnosticism is a 'heretical' form of Christianity, it pre-dates Christianity but fed from it as well as from other sources.
Simon, UK

"Genius or off his rocker"? Are the two mutually exclusive?
Jonathan Evans, London

I've always tended to come up against people who consider 'Jerusalem' to be nationalistic and jingoistic. I suppose the references to Chariots and Arrows, mingled with the references to Christ setting foot on English soil don't help; that we're Gods own appointed few. But to me, it's more about the loss of religious sentiment in the newly established Industrial towns and a longing for a return to a rural idyll. The imagery is somehow visionary and monumental and very, very powerful; and that's why it remains such a popular poem.
Mark Holmes, Baildon

And as for suggestions of druggie iconhood? "He had no connections with that world. Apart from the odd pint of porter, there's no evidence he took drugs at all," Whittaker insists.

This is a bit disingenuous. Blake was a fully-fledged visionary, a utopian who practised forms of sexual magic with Kabbalistic elements, an extreme individualist and antinomian who believed that he owed no loyalty to the rules of society. Drugs or not, there are perfectly good reasons why he's become such a hippie/ countercultural icon.
MJ, Cornwall

I find it intriuging that this piece repeatedly perpetuates popular stigma against mental illness. So what if Blake was "nuts"? That doesn't degrade any art he created by any stretch of the imagination. Equally intriguing is the thinking of the writer, who either uses language so poorly as to be easily misinterpreted or whom openly displays their disdain for anyone who happens to have a mental illness.
John Urquhart, Lampeter, Wales

I'm the descendant of Blake's friend and patron, John Linnell, and have spent a great deal of time reading and researching Blake's work. For me, above all, Blake is the man who bounced my great great great grandfather on his knee as an infant at Collins Farm in Hampstead and sang him the Songs of Innocence, a much loved family friend.

Blake was a passionate and impulsive man. At the time, engravers were often held to be eccentric, and I believe the combination of close difficult work requiring high levels of concentration, together with close proximity to noxious chemicals and fumes may have had something to do with this. As far as Blake's work goes, it is not really radical or political in nature, although he often sided with the weak and oppressed and had his origins in the world of London "trade" - "symmetry" does indeed rhyme with "eye" if you allow Blake a London accent.
Tim Linnell, Brighton

Blake was a visionary poet and artist. His philosophy inspired a whole generation of artists who later on became known as Romantics including the last great (self-styled) Romantic poet W.B.Yeats. Blake's poetry has a rhythmic cadence few poets could emulate and his back-to-nature philosophy is all the more relevant in nowadays debates about issues likes of environment and global warming.
jaleel akhtar, Brighton

Blake was both off his rocker and a genius. He'd had have to have been to have devised his own mythology as in "The Four Zoas" (too arcane - I couldn't get through it). He was a social commentator and a compassionate man who was concerned mainly with the well-being of the poor. His "Songs of Experience" show best what he was for.
David Fisher, Manchester

As an artist who studied at the RA Schools and a practising engraver and etcher I find Blakes work powerful and beautiful full of dynamic and energy filled lines. How uninformed and ignorant of art is Waldemar Januszczak with his inane comment "He couldn't draw properly and his figures are all wobbly".
Chris Robinson, Newcastle Upon Tyne

This Saturday is the last chance to see the highly acclaimed new oratorio by Rachel Stott based on William Blake's life: 'Companion of Angels' at St Mary's Felpham where Blake lived for several years.
Joanna, London, England

When I was studying English A level, in the 1960s, I was assured by a very impressive teacher that Blake's "dark satanic mills" were not, in fact, the factories that everyone assumes, but churches. I would be fascinated to know how much water this theory actually holds, because it seems both logical and wryly amusing, given Blake's radicalism and the way that the poem is revered in some ecclesisatical circles.
Steve Clarke, Isle of Skye, Scotland

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