William Blake was “too good for the room.” Despite all his work and all his gifts he remained largely ignored or else outright mocked during his lifetime. Even the patrons who assisted in the publication of his etchings and illustrations, poetry and sociological texts, did so more as a favor for a friend than with any conviction that Blake’s work was any good. Blake’s genius was so grand he did not merely toil before his time, but in fact had lapped humanity a few times over.
As a people we Americans are used to the swamp of hyperbole through which we wade. Every entertainer is a superstar; every mildly capable person is a genius; anyone not actively killing kittens in front of pre-schoolers is a saint. Even I, angry at the trend, cannot help but exploit it willy-nilly to overstate my own argument.
William Blake was the genuine article, an intellect on the order of a Newton or a da Vinci. He was so comfortable in his gifts that he didn’t even mind being shabbily treated by his contemporaries. He had a clear conviction about the nature of the universe and was content to wait for society to catch up to his work. In the meantime he carried on creating. The work was all that mattered.
His visual style has inspired everyone from Gustave Doré to Hannibal Lecter. His poetry is so well known that countless people could recite it even while claiming the name “Blake” is unfamiliar to them. “Tiger, Tiger burning bright, in the forest of the night…” All his body of work is self-referent linking back to itself, slowly building a canvas of words that almost begs to be considered as a whole. Every time the Monty Python crew climb into the box because someone said “mattress” to Mr. Lambert, all their fans get to hear Blake as they sing, “And did those feet in ancient times…” a bit of poetry that is today the hymn, Jerusalem.
Blake casually knew about a whole hell of a lot of things. Consider his painting of Newton, the mathematician. Notice how Newton’s posture mimics the curve and coil of the chambered nautilus, as does the end of the sheet on which he draws at the right hand of the picture. The elaborate, unnatural musculature on Newton’s back enhances this effect, thereby alluding to the miracles of nature as revealed in a Fibonacci sequence, a magical series of numbers which is also key to the theory behind the Golden Ratio, which in turn is followed in the painting’s composition.
By our modern standards, Blake was a sad failure. Critics considered him at best a kind of addled, innocent lunatic and at worst a dangerous heretic. And how much did all this discouragement slow him down? None. Toward the end of his life Blake worked on a series of engravings to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. He was nowhere close to completing them, yet he worked feverishly on the project right up to his dying day, knowing it was his end. He talked to his wife that evening about his passing on. He had worked all day knowing he would expire in just a few hours. Nothing could stop him. Not the doubt of others, not the disapproval of his society, not poverty nor even death. It wasn’t hubris that kept him at it this way, but a simple commitment to the work. He knew the work was more important than he was.
Indeed, Blake believed the body and the soul were part of the same construct, but that the body was simply the limit of what the physical part of our being could perceive. The bigger part of our body/soul package was energy. He believed our energy was immortal and that it could connect with the living. Dying might be just the push his Dante project needed.
Blake began to sell better once he snuffed it. For years after his death men would come to bargain with his wife over his manuscripts and prints. She was always polite, and she always explained that they would have to wait until she’d had a chance to “…discuss the business with Mr. Blake.” She meant it, too.
We have an industry devoted to convincing us how great our modern artists are. It means money for them. Nothing is more important to them than our regard. That is how we know them for frauds. True artists don’t give a damn what we think. Because we don’t matter. To a real artist the work is what matters.
Just the work.