Art from the hands of a poet prophet

May 13, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In the first chapter of his great study of the poet William Blake, the critic Northrop Frye notes that there is a distinction between prophecy and prediction. Prediction, Frye says, involves foretelling the future. Prophecy, by contrast, is the revelation of eternal truths.

Blake was a prophet, and it was his lot to stoically endure the fate of one little honored in his native land. He was a difficult personality, eccentric in his views compared with the conforming multitudes around him, one of those quirky, isolated, largely self-taught geniuses whom the vast majority of his countrymen managed to completely ignore during his lifetime, despite the fact that he was among the greatest English poets.

Blake's staggering gifts were not limited to words, however, and for that he suffered the indignity of a double neglect. He was also one of the finest visual artists of his age, a man whose powerful pictorial imagination inspired him to produce hundreds of luminous, stunningly beautiful prints, drawings and watercolors to illustrate the poetry he admired most -- Shakespeare, Milton, Dante and the Bible -- as well as to accompany his own voluminous writings.

Blake's towering literary achievements were only fully recognized in the latter half of the 20th century. Now his singular accomplishments as draftsman, printer and engraver are the subject of a major exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that attempts to put the poet's visionary artworks into the context of his far better known lyric and epic verses.

For those who know Blake primarily as a "difficult" poet who created an elaborate personal mythology with its own complex symbolism and cosmology to communicate his prophetic vision of politics and religion, the Met show will come as something of a revelation. Blake's artworks make the apparent incoherence and obscurity of his poetry at least seem comprehensible, just as the richness of his verses adds to our understanding of his pictures.

Blake was born into a working-class family in London in 1757, the third of seven children, and spent virtually his entire life in that city, never traveling outside England, where he died in poverty in 1827. Though he was a contemporary of the great Romantics Wordsworth, Keats, Byron and Shelley, there is no evidence he ever met any of them or that they knew of his work.

After a rudimentary education that included a year at a drawing school, Blake was apprenticed to a London engraver in 1772, at the age of 15. There he was assigned to make drawings of the medieval monuments at Westminster Abbey and other old London churches (several of these early drawings are in the Met show), and found himself inspired by the elongated forms and clear contours of Gothic art, which he took as his model of ideal beauty despite the prevailing neoclassical aesthetic. He also admired the Renaissance masters Michelangelo, Raphael and Durer, whose works he studied in engraved reproductions.

Poetry as liberator

Blake's art is intimately tied up with his poetry, which he saw as a liberating force against the evils of political and religious authoritarianism as embodied in the British monarchy and the established church. He was an admirer of the French Revolution, a religious free-thinker, a champion of social equality for women and people of color, and a proto-Freudian who believed that sexual repression and the separation of man's reason from his imaginative and spiritual powers lay at the root of human unhappiness.

It was easy for the conservative establishment of his day to dismiss him as a crank, a far-out dreamer and misfit. But the truth is that while in many of his attitudes he was a man ahead of his time, he was also very much of it. He despised hypocrisy and injustice in all forms, but, more important, he believed passionately in the potential of human beings to throw off the oppressive economic, social and political order he saw all around him that cruelly stunted minds and spirits.

To convey these beliefs, Blake invented his own imaginative universe peopled by a cast of characters who symbolized the contending forces that keep humanity in thrall. For instance, there is Albion, England's namesake and Blake's gigantic personification of British liberty, who is tormented by the division of his four human attributes -- reason, emotion, body and imagination.

The fatal separation of reason from imagination Blake personified in the character Urizen (a pun on "your reason"), the false prophet who "inscribes metal books of laws with an iron pen." Urizen has the benevolent appearance of Michelangelo's Jehovah in the Sistine Chapel frescoes, but Blake depicts him as the brooding, wrathful "Ancient of Days" dividing the universe from on high with lightning bolts that issue from his fingers like compass arms.

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