In writing a couple of thoughts about William Blake I am engaging in a very minor piece of family heritage. My great-great-great grandfather, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote a biography of Blake, published in 1863. In fact, Alexander died of scarlet fever aged 33, before the book was completed. His wife, Anne, finished the work.
Prompted by an interest in Anne, I was recently drawn to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. I discovered that his life was sadder, and far funnier, than I had known. The archetype of the struggling artist is a cliché in our time; wander through Soho, Whitechapel or any arts college and you’ll see several dozen who might, in their cups, confess themselves a hidden genius. But the popular vision of the overlooked genius seems to prefer the saintly gazer into eternity, careless of worldly recognition. Not the angry, embittered rationaliser of their own defeat, enervated by disappointment which so many who strive can become. Blake, as Ackroyd observes, was both. He saw his work as of and for eternity yet railed against those who overlooked him, the fashions of the time that prevented any chance of his wider success and recognition. One of the saddest moments in Ackroyd’s book comes when detailing a private journal entry of Blake’s. Having outlined the worldly successes of his peers, Blake concludes ‘I was hid’. At a later time, or as an afterthought, he crosses through was and writes am: I am hid. For a man who was clear enough in his genius to emphatically and publicly compare himself to Michelangelo and Raphael and to declare his verse the greatest since the Iliad, the humiliation of being overlooked, passed over, must have been of hellish intensity.
Yet throughout the years of neglect Blake sustained a strong regimen of work and a belief in the imagination as his beacon, the core of all his various and complex visions, the proof of man’s divinity. And whilst every would-be artist should take inspiration from his tenacity, it is the second point that I find most inspirational. Like many mystics he perceived the physical world, which he called ‘vegetable’, as a brittle shell, a miserable husk of the spirit. The spirit, in contrast, was eternal and of God. But, or so I see it, even God was – at times – an emanation of the imagination.
It was encouraging to read this, as I’ve reached my own conclusions. When challenged by an esoterically-inclined friend as to what I believe, I told him that the only force that seems to unite or make sense of the endless human outpouring of myth, art, fiction, faith, scientific invention, song and untruth, is imagination. What others might call God, I call imagination. It is uniquely human and stands as my conception of the sacred without the creaking support of supernatural agency. I don’t need – though I may sometimes want – the attendant belief in the disembodied soul, gods, ancestral spirits or magical forces that always accompany a belief in divinity. Because the imagination – whilst taking its place in my private pantheon – is an entity of the vegetable world; an evolutionary by-product existing within, and because of, the human body. That we can build cathedrals, fight wars and conceive masterpieces all for the glory of an invisible force is the most terrible, farcical and wonderful proof of humanity. And that it was sparked at all, by hungry, vegetable humans – as a stick against a stone, charcoal scraped against a cave wall – is miracle enough for me. But I envy Blake his visions.