William Blake (1757 to 1827) was a visionary poet, painter, engraver and musician.
He had no formal education, but read widely in Greek philosophy and that of his contemporaries, and studied and challenged the psychological and philosophical theories propounded by Locke and Hume.
He read the Bhagavad Gita, Jacob Boehme, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Swedish philosopher Swedenborg, and he knew the Bible intimately. Apprenticed in his youth to an engraver, Blake later used his engraving skills to invent a new method of printing.
By engraving his texts and image outline backwards in ‘mirror-writing’, he was able to combine word and image on the same page.
This allowed him to create a highly dynamic artwork, with the resonances and dissonances between image and text generating new and unexpected meanings.
With the help of his wife Catherine, who hand-coloured some of the work, he became entirely self-sufficient in the production of his extraordinary, illuminated books. The Blakes’ unique process, in one small room, replaced the necessity for large teams of artisan specialists in two separate workshops.
Blake is a champion of the creative imagination, striving to overcome the alienation between people, and between humanity and the natural world. For Blake “Nature is Imagination itself.” He strove to show us how to throw off our ‘Mind Forg’d Manacles’, both the bondage of social conditioning and the domination of our rational faculty. He shows us how to enter the world of Imagination, and through love and forgiveness to realise our divine nature, as in this line from the major prophecy, Jerusalem:
“Cannot Man exist without mysterious offering of Self for Another?
In sacrificing what Blake calls our selfish ‘Selfhood’ we can also restore the soul of the world, for ‘Everything that lives is Holy.’ The earliest work in which he experimented with his new printing method was All Religions are One, and whilst his core beliefs could be described as a unique form of Christian Hermeticism, he embraces the wisdom of other cultures and other religions.
There is much in Blake that is reminiscent of aspects of Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism, but the human is always front and present. As he writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘Thus Men forgot that All deities reside in the Human Breast’. This pivotal early text printed in 1790 contains some of Blake’s central concepts:
‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern’.
In the same text Blake overturns the dualistic concept of Body/Mind as separate:
‘Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age’.
Blake created his own mythology, drawing on a number of traditional sources, which enabled him to convey ideas and concepts that had never been expressed in this way before.
‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s
I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create’
Through poetry, prose and image, Blake explores the human soul, psyche and body; ecological, political and social systems, and the scientific thought of Newton and Descartes.
In Donald D. Ault’s book, Visionary Physics: Blake’s response to Newton, Ault, an American physicist and literary critic, demonstrates how Blake brilliantly exposes the limitations of Newton’s and Descartes’ models of the universe and in so doing, anticipates Einstein’s theories of relativity and the New Physics.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Blake’s evocation of the psyche strongly foreshadows the concepts of both Freud and of the depth psychologist, Carl Jung. Jung describes Blake as one of the few Westerners to have achieved Satori: the inner, intuitive experience of Enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. Blake is profoundly concerned with universal suffering: through his art he deconstructs the mechanisms of patriarchy, politics and power, envisaging the cycles of history that turn revolution into tyranny.
Blake’s work also explores ideas of fluidity of gender and identity, insisting on the balance of the feminine and masculine in the divine and in the human, both fully realised in what he called the Human Form Divine. He taught himself a number of languages including Hebrew and Greek; he learned Italian in a matter of days in order to read Dante, and at the end of his life painted 102 pictures to illustrate the Divine Comedy.
Although much of his work was neglected and even scorned in his lifetime, Blake had some very eminent admirers, including Coleridge, and in later years a group of young artists including Samuel Palmer, who described Blake as ‘A man without a mask’. Blake died singing.
The current Blake Society was founded in 1985 and is a fast-growing community of members from all over the world, across six continents. Whether you are just beginning to be curious about the Blakes’ work, or have been enjoying and studying it for decades, we will welcome you into our Society. The Society’s aim is to celebrate the work of William and Catherine Blake in all manifestations of their poetry, prose, and artwork.
We also strive to inspire, to encourage and to give a platform to work arising from Blake’s incredible influence on artists, scientist, writers, musicians, performers and academics around the globe. We invite you to join us in this endeavour, exploring Blake’s work through live and online events of every kind.
Recent events have included; an art exhibition, readings and performances in Lambeth, where Blake use to live; three authors referencing Blake and a book launch of a lovely letterpress edition of Auguries of Innocence; Billy Bragg talking about Blake and the Dissident tradition; a live concert with Mike and Kate Westbrook and a seven-piece jazz ensemble performing The Westbrook Blake; a new multimedia play about Blake called Albion, Awake!; Patrick Harpur, author of The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, Daimonic Reality and Mercurius in conversation about Blake and esoteric traditions.
As a registered charity, we charge a minimal amount for the many benefits of membership. These include free access to the majority of events, a regular, free email newsletter with news of Blakean events and publications, and a copy of the beautiful Blake Society journal, Vala.
The Society has a distinguished pantheon of past Presidents and Patrons, including Philip Pullman and Kathleen Raine. Our current president is the celebrated poet, author, performer and playwright Kae Tempest and our patrons are Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Mike and Kate Westbrook.
We are in a direct line of descent from the Blake Society founded in 1912 by Thomas Wright, a schoolmaster in Olney, Buckinghamshire. This earlier incarnation of our current Society was inspired by a suggestion made by the Irish poet W.B.Yeats and Edwin Ellis, British poet and illustrator, both members of the Society and editors of the first full edition of Blake’s work.
Yeats, with his esoteric interests and extensive occult knowledge wrote extensive commentaries on the poetry. Members included other early Titans of Blake studies: Geoffrey Keynes, Joseph Wicksteed, Dr Greville MacDonald, and the president Sir William Blake Richmond K.B. Women were strongly represented in the membership although, unlike the Society today, noticeably absent from the Trustees of 1912. Miss E. Harnden was a member, giving her address as ‘Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, Sussex’. Members hailed from England, Scotland, France, Portugal, South Africa, Canada and Tokyo.
Below is a picture of the 1912 Society. We warmly invite you to join the Blake Society:
Do join us here https://blakesociety.org/
The Blake Society is a Registered Charity, No 1106130.
With thanks to the following for the use of the images:
The New York Public Library: Blake’s autograph
Yale Center for British Art: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion
Wikimedia commons: Newton
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia: Dante’s Inferno