William Blake
Poet and Visionary
(1757 - 1827)

Blake print - Ancient of DaysIf you want to drink to your heart’s content from the well of gratefulness, plunge your dipper into the writings of William Blake. Though the depth of the well shaft may leave you in the dark about some passages, you’ll find many accessible ones to quench your thirst:

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.”

“To create a little flower is the labour of ages.”

“Damn braces: Bless relaxes.”

“Exuberance is beauty.”

Blake’s gratitude stretches down into the murkier regions of life, where poverty, war, cruel factory conditions, and other social ills threaten to steal from us the light of heaven on earth. Blake allows his rage over inhumanity to fuel his prophetic clarity. He reminds us that “all deities reside in the human breast.” We have within us divine power to imagine and create a different world, in which Nature is restored and we live in peace with all around us. By bringing that vision alive in our hearts, Blake offers us a deeply refreshing draught.

-- Patricia Carlson

"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."

William Blake portraitWilliam Blake, the poet and artist, was a man out of kilter with his times. Born in London in 1757, he grew up in a culture that valued reason, order, and moderation. To Blake, who from early childhood reported visions of angels, those were values to disdain. Instead of reason he prized the power of Imagination. By this, he did not mean simply creative fancy, but insight, the ability to see reality in its full spiritual dimensions.

Blake was trained as an engraver, and by this trade he managed to support himself and his devoted wife, Catherine. But as a result of Blake’s persistent habit of offending his patrons, he was often little removed from real poverty. An artist, and not simply a draftsman, he had a hard time drawing to please an audience wider than himself. For his own fantastical paintings of angels and allegorical figures there was little chance of profit. The same was true for his poetry, which was either deceptively simple or maddeningly obscure.

For Blake, his poetry and art were not intended to be “beautiful,” any more than they were meant to entertain. They were the expression of his own spiritual vision – as such, a kind of protest against everything acceptable in the worlds of art and religion in his day. It is almost easier to list the things that Blake opposed than to say what he favored. He deplored the moralism that passed for virtue; the hypocrisy and dogmatism or organized religion; the ugliness and cruelty of industrialism; the hollow pedantry that substituted for insight. He was in some sense a spiritual anarchist, a kind of biblical prophet who looked at the world in light of the coming judgment.

Obsessed by the figure of Christ, he felt that the churches had emptied Christianity of its revolutionary content; they had transformed the gospel into a religion offering little alternative to the spirit-numbing values of the world. Thus, he felt forced to reinvent a kind of Christianity of his own.

Blake - Fairies DancingThis had all the dangers one might expect. Blake’s “theology” was peculiar and idiosyncratic. But as refracted through his artistic lens, it could also yield moments of dazzling insight. In the words of Thomas Merton, Blake’s rebellion “was fundamentally the rebellion of the saints. It was the rebellion of the lover of the living God,” a kind of “intuitive protest against Christianity’s estrangement from hits own eschatological ground.”

From the vantage point of Imagination Blake cast his eye over the landscape of England – what seemed to many of his contemporaries to be the “best of all possible worlds” – and saw a culture of death in which all trace of the spirit was being steadily expunged.

 I wander thro’ each charter’d street

 Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

 And mark in every face I meet

 Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 In every cry of every Man,

 In every Infant’s cry of fear,

 In every voice, in every ban,

 The Mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

Blake’s prophet utterances sound no less strange today. But his warnings about “dark Satanic mills” no longer sound like the ravings of a private paranoia. In this light Blake’s call for integration of mysticism and prophecy has a more telling appeal, and many more may be persuaded to take up his challenge:

 I shall not cease from Mental Fight,

 Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand

 Til we have built Jerusalem

 In England’s green & pleasant Land.

At the very least, those who have spent much time in the company of Blake may be influenced, as was the young Thomas Merton, “to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live is to live in a world that is charged with the presence and reality of God.”

Blake died on August 12, 1827.

Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David


Additional Resources

The British Library website has a robust William Blake section that features unique and insightful articles as well as scans of his work & personal notebook.

See: William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1971); Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976); Bro. Patrick Hart, ed., The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1981).

The Library of Congress archive offers extensive Blake resources.