Touching that mysterious place in each of us where the material and spiritual meet – where the worldly strives with the otherworldly, and time and eternity vie for our attention – Blake is a man for our time. And few writers are better suited to introduce us to his life and work than Malcolm Muggeridge.
We are all endlessly looking for reality even when we try not to, or think we are not. This applies particularly, of course, to poets, artists, mystics – even, in their own way, to philosophers and scientists. Though we pursue fantasy, never more so than today, the soul’s only true sustenance is reality, which even in the most adverse circumstance it somehow finds, just as a seed falling on a rock face somehow finds the tiny crack where it can grow.
Of no English poet and artist is this more true than of William Blake (1757-1827). Born as the Renaissance world was coming to an end, he was profoundly distrustful of the intellect as a means of finding truth, and of science as a means of exploring it. Though he was the first, and perhaps the greatest, of the romantic poets, he lived to abominate the spirit of romanticism and all the license and disorder it involved.
I am wrapped in mortality, my flesh is a prison, my bones the bars of death. What is mortality but the things related to the body, which dies? What is immortality but the things related to the spirit, which lives eternally? What is the joy of heaven but improvement of the things of the spirit? What are the pains of hell but ignorance and bodily lust, idleness and devastation of the things of the spirit? The imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself.
It was this spiritual reality that Blake painted in his pictures and wrote about in his poetic compositions. He had no use for any other kind of reality, to the point that he could never bear to paint from what is called life, as expressed in flesh or substance or time, but only life's inward reality, or truth. The camera, representing the opposite principle, would have been anathema to him. Indeed, in my opinion, in a sense he prophesied its coming and pointed to its dangers when he wrote of how "We ever must believe a lie / When we see with, not through, the eye." His warning has passed unnoticed, but what a multitude and diversity of lies have, in consequence, come to be believed in!
I have no doubt myself that Blake was right, and that the only reality in life has been from the beginning of time, and will be till the end of time, a spiritual one called God. Blake's work is, to me, one of the great expressions of sanity that exist. Nor does it in the least surprise me that, for this very reason, he was in his time considered mad, and would today certainly be subjected to psychiatric treatment, with a view to drugging or psychoanalyzing and shocking him into what passes for sanity.
The faculty whereby Blake saw into the reality of things he called Imagination, and this is what he remained true to, from the beginning to the end, despite neglect, failure, penury, and other earthly ills that might well have deflected him from his central purpose.
From the beginning, Blake was aware of Good and Evil as the two poles between which the current of life passes, generating the divine spark which exists in everyone.
Every Night and every Morn / Some to Misery are Born;
Every Morn and every Night, / Some are born to Sweet Delight;
Some are born to Sweet Delight, / Some are born to Endless Night.
From his early days to the very end of his life, when he lay dying and burst out singing of the things he saw in Heaven, Blake was essentially, and in all matters, a religious man. I define this as meaning someone who, as Blake put it himself, has the capacity
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.
This article is an excerpt from A Third Testament.