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Blake as a Prophet of the New Age

Artykuł w języku angielskim o Wiliamie Blake, przedstawiający go jako proroka nowych czasów.

The end of the 18th century was a time of political upheavals and intellectual confusion in Europe. The American War of Independence proved the possibility of abolishing the old political system and implementing the new democratic principles in the New World. Then the French Revolution, which began in 1789, overturned the social and political order in the name of the intoxicating ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. Revolutionary France was first looked up to as the great hope of the world that managed to do away with tyranny; it had an enormous influence upon the imagination of young idealists throughout Europe. This new age, later called 'the Romantic period', lasted only a little over three decades and was marked by a great intensity in literary activities, with poetry as its most important medium.

In England, a poet who belonged to the Pre-Romantic period or to the First Generation of the Romantics was William Blake, whose work is totally different from the poetry of other Romantics, of either the First or the Second Generation.


William Blake was a revolutionary visionary and a visionary revolutionary. He claimed to have visions from an early age: when he was four, God 'put his head to the window'1 and scared little Blake to tears. At the age of eight, he told his mother that he had seen angels in the trees, and she had to save him from being cuffed for lying by his less tolerant father. This ability of envisaging different things stayed with Blake and formed the core of his art. The political and social upheavals of his day were for him like a cosmic battle between Life, viewed as energy, and Death, symbolizing restriction.

His art evolves at the same time on the social, political, psychological, imaginative, historical and spiritual levels.

It exposes society divided and at war with itself as a result of inequality and power; it portrays the human psyche as fractured into competing faculties and capacities and the universe is seen as being fought over by 'Giant forms' 2. Each form represents some element of society and the psyche, struggling within the sick and sleeping body of Britain.

One of the crucial points in William Blake's early formation was his class position. He did not go to university like Wordsworth and Coleridge, and was not as independent as Byron. Blake was more like a tradesman, a worker with his hands, who had been under the influence of the plebeian radicalism, which was a strong and shaping force of the French Revolution. But being born in 1757, he was also very much influenced by traditions of the eighteenth century.

William Blake is the example of the individual testing standards in all directions. He revealed the importance and the dangers of a consistent refusal to accept things as they are. The greater part of his writing exposes his individual testing of wisdom, morality and theology of his time. Blake's convictions were not far placed from what many people believed before and since his time, although he phrased them in forms that were then a violent challenge to conventional ways of thinking. He reached his scale of values by more strenuous route than most people, and treated it as a personal achievement.

Besides testing of the conventional values personally, Blake reveals characteristics of the period that was coming. He also felt the significance of childhood experience. Blake accepted eagerly the glimpses he gained, sometimes in the form of hallucination, as an unconscious process; he turned away from his contemporary culture's dependence on the classical past to his own version of history and pre- history in order to draw on the dynamic resources of what seemed early and primitive.

William Blake valued strong emotion, notably anger, as the tool or weapon of a healthy mind.

At the beginning of the new period, Blake was to a great extent isolated and not only in the social context. Blake's isolation was absolute. It was the isolation of a mind that sought to make the best of heaven and earth, in the image of neither. It was isolation of a totally different kind of human vision; of an unquenchable longing for the absolute integration of man, in his total nature, with the universe. It was the isolation of a temperament run on fixed ideas; and incidentally, of a craftsman who could not earn a living. There are analogies to Blake's position in a world which has so many displaced persons as our own; but they are inadequate.

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The later years of the period made the narrow firmness of the earlier 'normality' give way to new openness of mind, and it was possible to make excursions outwards, from the established bases of thinking and feeling, without needing as much social isolation as Blake.

Though labelled 'mystic' by many textbooks and fenced in this way from the reader, Blake is not off the main track, but simply ahead of it. He should be seen as a peculiarly disturbed and disturbing prophet of the condition of modern man rather than a master builder. From any conventional point of view he is too different to be easily related to known conceptions of the nature of the individual and society. Blake combines, for example, the formal devotional qualities of the English nonconformists with the intellectual daring of Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade and Freud. No Christian saint ever came to be more adoring Jesus, and no naturalistic investigator was a more outspoken opponent of traditional Christian ethics. He was one of the subtlest and most far-reaching figures in the intellectual liberation of Europe that took place at the end of the eighteenth century. But he had no interest in history, and easily deteriorated into primitive nationalism. To the end of his life his chief symbol for man, 'the eternal man,' was Albion; the origin of 'natural religion' he located among the Druids; he hated Newton and despised Voltaire, but painted the apotheosis of Nelson and Pitt.

Like so many self-educated men, he was fanatically learned; but he read like a Fundamentalist - to be inspired or to refute. He painted by 'intellectual vision' - that is, he painted ideas; his imagination was so original that it carried him to the borders of modern surrealism.

William Blake was the great precursor and visionary. If only his visions were taken under consideration, we would count him as the one of the Romantic poets. He was the closest from all the eighteenth century poets, creating before Wordsworth, to be called that way. At the same time Blake was the last link in the developmental chain of pre-romanticism.

His work is totally different from the poetry of the other Romantics, of either the First or the Second Generation. Blake put together extreme mysticism and forms of rebellion against world's order.

B. Woodcock, The Selected Poems of William Blake, Kent: The Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2000

Bernarda Gołębiowska-Łuszczki

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