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Romanticism and Fantasy: A Closer Look at William Blake

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

William BlakeA few months ago, I started an irregular series of posts about Romanticism and fantasy. I wanted to talk about the significance of Romanticism, the literary movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, to the development of fantasy fiction. For a variety of reasons, I’d been distracted from continuing those posts for a while; I want to return to them now. The original inspiration for this series of posts came when I tried writing a piece on William Blake, and realised there was more to be said about Blake’s time and contemporaries than fit into the one post. I’ve since realised that there’s more to be said about Blake himself than I put into the post I wrote, so I’ve decided to return to Romanticism with a longer look at Blake.

I want to begin by acknowledging a tremendously helpful comment I got on that first Blake post. I spent a fair amount of time in that post considering whether and how Blake should be regarded as a fantasist, and commenter RadiantAbyss pointed out that Blake fit naturally into early fantasy due to his concern with metaphysics. I think that’s a strong point, and something that applies (to a greater or lesser degree) to many of the other Romantic poets. I think it particularly applies to Blake, as I hope much of this post will show.

Before launching into another look at Blake, I want to quickly recap my posts in this series so far, and where I hope to be going with the whole thing. It’s my general contention that modern fantasy (along with science fiction and horror) are deeply linked with Romanticism. I think the writers of that time pioneered approaches and techniques to fantasy still in use today. I wrote an introduction to the series, then talked about the 18th-century background that gave rise to English Romanticism. Then I wrote about the emergence of the Romantic spirit in the late 18th century, starting with the poems of Ossian. I went on to talk about Romanticism and fantasy in France and in Germany before returning to England to discuss Gothic fiction. In those last two posts, I found myself talking about writers consciously trying to mix fantastic elements into a prose form that had been experimenting with greater realism; in other words, trying to find a balance between the real and the fantastic, trying to find a way to present fantasy with verisimilitude. That’s fairly directly relevant to modern prose fantasy, I think. But for this post, and the next two, I’ll be changing my tack slightly, and writing about major poets whose work seems to me to be particularly relevant not only to the genesis of fantasy fiction, but to the themes of fantasy as it is and has been written. And I’ll be starting with William Blake.

The Book of ThelBlake was born on November 28, 1757, to a family of hosiers — lower-middle-class tradesfolk. They were Dissenters, religious but not belonging to the Church of England. Blake was apparently ungovernable as a child, and was not sent for formal schooling due to his resistance to rules and punishments; he was already seeing visions of spirits, apparently starting at age four. These visions would continue throughout his life, and materially affected his poetry. At ten he did receive four years of instruction in drawing, leading to an apprenticeship with an engraver.

It may well have been during that seven-year term that some of the fascinations that would shape Blake’s later art and poetry took root. Certainly his sense of what was important in art, of the value of ‘minute particulars’ and of a clear outline, was shaped by his apprenticeship. He drew engravings of monuments in Westminster Abbey, and worked on publications by the Society of Antiquaries — as well as on a book analysing ancient mytholgies, setting up the sense of history and historical revelation in his work. In later years, Blake would write of his love for Chatterton and Ossian, the great pseudo-archaic poets of the 1760s; what’s important here is that Blake was a part of the growing cult of antiquarianism and medieval revivals. He was developing not only a sense of English history and of the range of mythology, but also an understanding of the mythology of history. It may be relevant that the new Freemasons’ Hall was right across the street from his master’s shop.

In 1779, at the end of his apprenticeship, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy. He found himself personally and artistically opposed to the Academy’s head, Sir Joshua Reynolds, but began a career for himself as an engraver and became friends with a circle of other artists. He also discovered himself as a political radical, and there’s a story of himself and a friend, Thomas Stothard, being briefly arrested by soldiers during a sketching trip on the Medway. In 1781, following a love affair that had gone bad, he met 19-year-old Catherine Boucher; they were married the following year. There seems to have been some marital problems in the early years of their relationship, possibly due to their childlessness. Whatever the problem, it seems to have passed, and the two lived together happily for the rest of Blake’s life (and beyond; after his death, Catherine had visions in which he returned to her).

Songs of InnocenceIn 1783, one of Blake’s Academy colleagues helped see a collection of Blake’s verse into print: Poetical Sketches, which had a print run of 40 copies. It’s all work that Blake wrote between age 12 and age 20, so it’s not surprising that it’s more conventional than his later writing. Still, it has its moments and you can see Blake experimenting with various forms, technical approaches, and vocabularies. In 1784, he wrote a sort of genial sub-Swiftian satire of himself and his friends, An Island in the Moon. It’s an odd burlesque mixture of prose and poetry, with some hints of what was to come in his future — lyrics that he’d use in a later collection, philosophical attitudes that’d emerge more strongly. Blake left the piece unfinished, and may never have intended for it to be read.

That same year, Blake opened a print shop, and in 1785 graduated from the Royal Academy; he was now a tradesman, like his father. In February 1787, Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert died, aged 19. Blake, by his own account, would continue to speak with Robert’s spirit. In fact, according to Blake, Robert’s spirit gave him the solution to a vexing technical difficulty.

Around 1788, Blake had started work on “Tiriel,” a vaguely Lear-like story of an outcast aged tyrant and his strife with his ungrateful children. Blake wanted to integrate illustrations into the story, but couldn’t seem to figure out exactly the right way to mix words and pictures. And, if he could, how would he be able to print it? What he had in mind was effectively beyond the technology of the period. He imagined a new kind of poetry, melded with designs and colour, something like a medieval illuminated manuscript. But how could he create something like that, and produce multiple identical copies?

Songs of ExperienceIt was apparently Robert’s spirit that explained the trick. Blake would take sheets of copper, then write and draw upon them in a mixture of oil and candle-grease. Then he’d let the plate sit in a light acid for three or four hours. The design and words would be protected from the acid, which would eat away the rest of the plate. That done, he had his design. He could coat it with ink, transfer it to paper, and then colour the paper as he liked.

His first test of this new mode of printing seems to have been a pair of brief tracts, “There Is No Natural Religion” and “All Religions Are One.” These are philosophical arguments about religion, perception, and creativity. Blake was satisfied. He never did engrave “Tiriel,” but in 1789 produced The Book of Thel, an almost-comic fable of a girl, or female spirit, refusing to enter the world of experience and matter. He seems to have sold copies through his print shop.

He followed Thel with a collection of short lyrics he called Songs of Innocence. A few years later, he’d create counterparts to these poems, Songs of Experience. Together they illustrated “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” There are traces of a grander conception even in these short poems: a name here, a peculiarly resonant image there. In fact, Blake had worked out a kind of private mythology which incorporated Biblical history, British history, the contemporary political and aesthetic scenes — everything of importance to him. This would be the matter of the poems he would go on to write, visionary poems of ‘Giant Forms’ that embodied various aspects of both the human psyche and the physical world.

Songs of Innocence and of ExperiencePerhaps emboldened by his new art form, at any rate sure now of the course of his future work, in 1790 Blake created a remarkable book he called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It mixes prose, poetry, and aphoristic proverbs; in that heterogeneity it glances back to An Island in the Moon, and perhaps its earthiness and occasional cheerful obscentity also recalls the earlier work. But it’s far more substantial, and far stranger. Blake presents Hell as energy, and Heaven as restraint; id and superego, to put things in later terms. Blake aligns himself with Hell, seeing the liberation of revolutionary energy as a necessary corrective for the tyranny of his era. The Marriage is an exuberant, wildly imaginative work that ends by promising that Blake will produce “The Bible of Hell: which the world shall have whether they will or no.” But, he says, “the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” His new process of printing illuminated verse has symbolic importance; it will cleanse “the doors of perception.”

Despite the promise of the Marriage, Blake seems to have made one last try at traditional publication. Typeset proofs exist of the first book of a seven-book epic called The French Revolution. The proofs date to 1791, and claim that a further six books have already been written, though no evidence of them has ever turned up. Not much is known about The French Revolution. The proofs claim that the poem will be issued by well-known radical publisher Joseph Johnson, for whom Blake regularly produced engravings. This did not happen, and it’s unclear why.

Blake’s poem celebrated the Revolution; he himself apparently often wore a bonnet rouge, a symbol of sympathy with the revolutionaries. In those early days, before the Terror, the Revolution seemed to hold tremendous promise. As a result, government repression in Britain became increasingly heavy-handed to repress the inspired radicals. It is possible that either Johnson or Blake got cold feet about the publication of the Revolutionary poem. It’s also possible that events overtook the poem, and Blake came to doubt the Revoluition’s promise.

The Marriage of Heaven and HellIt is interesting that the poem mixes contemporary events and visionary imagery in a slightly different way than Blake’s later and greater poems. In the surviving text, much play is made with epic simile. Things are like things, where later the metaphor becomes literalised. Extravagant images are invoked, but it’s easy to read the extravagance as the point rather than the literal meaning. For example:

For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation; like spirits of fire in the beautiful
Porches of the Sun, to plant beauty in the desart craving abyss, they gleam
On the anxious city; all children new-born first behold them; tears are fled,
And they nestle in earth-breathing bosoms. So the city of Paris, their wives and children,
Look up to the morning Senate, and visions of sorrow leave pensive streets.

But heavy brow’d jealousies lower o’er the Louvre, and terrors of ancient Kings
Descend from the gloom and wander thro’ the palace, and weep round the King and his Nobles.
While loud thunders roll, troubling the dead, Kings are sick throughout all the earth,
The voice ceas’d: the Nation sat: And the triple forg’d fetters of times were unloos’d.
The voice ceas’d: the Nation sat: but ancient darkness and trembling wander thro’ the palace.

The terrors that descend and weep can be read as a poetic imagery. In later works, that sort of rationalisation would not be so easy. The Commons might be “like spirits of fire” here, but in other works they might be actual spirits. The imagery of The French Revolution is powerful, striking, imaginative, and occasionally fantastic; but it’s not as explicitly mythic as Blake later became.

Consider by contrast America a Prophecy, engraved only two years later. It opens as “The shadowy daughter of Urthona stood before red Orc” — so two characters at the core of Blake’s myth are at the very beginning of the poem. It builds through a visionary recounting of the American Revolution to a war of angels, demons, and dragons:

Over the hills, the vales, the cities rage the red flames fierce:
The Heavens melted from North to South; and Urizen, who sat
Above all heavens, in thunders wrapp’d, emerg’d his leprous head
From out his holy shrine, his tears in deluge piteous
Falling into the deep sublime; flagg’d with grey-brow’d snows
And thunderous visages, his jealous wings wav’d over the deep;
Weeping in dismal howling woe, he dark descended, howling
Around the smitten bands, clothèd in tears and trembling, shudd’ring, cold.
His storèd snows he pourèd forth, and his icy magazine,
He open’d on the deep, and on the Atlantic sea, white, shiv’ring;
Leprous his limbs, all over white, and hoary was his visage;
Weeping in dismal howlings before the stern Americans,
Hiding the Demon red with clouds and cold mists from the earth;
Till Angels and weak men twelve years should govern o’er the strong;
And then their end should come, when France receiv’d the Demon’s light.

For whatever reason, Blake seems to have subtly changed registers after The French Revolution, and become more directly mythic. It is possible that he did this to avoid any risk of official censorship. And it’s certainly possible that he learned the perils of overidentification of his myth with political reality — reality has an aggravating tendency to disappoint, as the example of the Revolution showed. But it’s more likely, I think, that he was following his chosen artistic path. His work seemed to expland, growing more inclusive and more cosmological as time passed. The French Revolution represents a kind of experiment, and one from which Blake turned away in order to explore the promise of myth, of fantasy.

AmericaThe second poem I quoted, America a Prophecy, was engraved in 1793. It was a tremendous fusion of Blake’s myth with contemporary events — specifically, the American Revolution. It introduced several of his key characters, perhaps most notably Urizen, the patriarchal god of repression, and Orc, the fiery rebel youth. It was a tremendous display of the strength of Blake’s new poetic form, in 16 ilustrated plates.

At about the same time as America, Blake created Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Reminiscent of the focused drama of “Tiriel” or The Book of Thel, it follows “the soft soul of America,” Oothoon, who is promised in marriage to Theotormon. She’s abducted and raped by Bromion, following which Theotormon turns from her. It’s a parable about love, gender, and colonial politics, but most immediately it’s a dramatic story with tremendous rhetorical set-pieces.

Blake went on with his “Bible of Hell” over the next two years, producing Europe a Prophecy, The Book of Urizen, The Song of Los, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los. Together they told a story going back before the creation of the world, and looking ahead beyond the revolutionary moment of the day. They’re all fairly short, adding up to about 60 individual plates (which include some wordless full-page illustrations).

Visions of the Daughters of AlbionI don’t want to get into too much detail interpreting Blake’s narrative, partly because details changed in his later works, and partly because any interpretation, however sensitive, is likely to be reductive. Blake’s work is highly allusive, and different readers will interpret his work differently, even sometimes with respect to basic plot points. But, broadly speaking, these works describe the creation and fall of the world, and its repression under the tyrannical rule of Urizen. Urizen’s son Fuzon castrates his father and tries to lead an exodus of spirits away from Urizen, but is killed and crucified on the Tree of Mystery. This sets up the fallen world of history, and the eighteen hundred years of the delusive rule of Enitharmon, created by the Eternal Prophet Los from his own blood just as he had made the human form for the fallen Urizen; Los and Enitharmon mated, creating the dragonlike Orc, who was bound until Blake’s time, when he burst free to foment revolutions in America and France that heralded the coming apocalypse.

Such is the myth in these first ‘prophecies.’ Blake was influenced by his studies in esoteric British history and Biblical myth. But he was also clearly influenced by Ossian — the names in Visions of the Daughters of Albion derive clearly from one of the Ossianic poems — and he copied out lines from Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 Gothic romance The Mysteries of Udolpho onto the back of one of his prints. So Blake was in the line of fantasists I tried to identify in my earlier posts.

By the later 1790s, things were changing for Blake. The Revolution had gone sour, and there was unrest in England. Blake turned away from politics; in later works his faith that an imaginative apocalypse could be brought on by external action, by the heroic uprising of Orc, seems to have given way to a sense of internal apocalypse that would be brought on by the efforts of the eternal artist Los. In the practical terms of his external life, Blake moved on from the relatively brief prophecies he had so far produced, and began work on a longer epic which he called “Vala.”

Europe a ProphecyIn 1795, he had taken on an engagement to produce 537 watercolours over the course of two years for an edition of a long poem called Night Thoughts, a popular poem in the late eighteenth century. Written by Edward Young between 1742 and 1745, it is divided into nine nights; so too was the poem Blake originally conceived. The Night Thoughts edition failed, and Blake seems to have abandoned “Vala,” unsure how to complete it. He returned to it in 1800, then gave it up again in 1802, then returned to it again, retitling it “The Four Zoas.” He finally left it unfinished in 1807, using some of its concepts and lines in his later work.

“The Four Zoas” (as it is most commonly known) expanded his universe and the conceptual scheme of his myth. Albion’s fall divided him into four powers, Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah, and Urthona; these then divided further, into female Emanations and menacing Spectres, siring children and occasionally becoming incarnate in time and space. Many of the names had already been mentioned in earlier poems, but the relationship among them was more detailed here than ever before. Here Blake’s myth found full expression. He tells the story of the universal man called Albion, and of the war that broke out among the different parts of Albion’s soul, which divided into four primal entities as Albion himself fell into a deathly slumber. The resulting conflict led to the creation (and fall) of the physical world, and involved thousands of years of history, which worked itself out through successive cycles. Blake, at the end of the eighteenth century, looked ahead to a potential end to these cycles, and to history: an apocalypse in which the world would be redeemed from its fall, and Albion reawakened.

“The Four Zoas” is somewhat outside the ‘canon’ of Blake’s engraved work, though it has been argued that the complete outline of Blake’s myth cannot be understood without it. Clearly an unfinished work, a readable text can still be found in the manuscript — with considerable editorial work. Most modern editions of the poem will be filled with bracketed passages that Blake wrote but deleted, and footnotes explaining particularly tricky textual problems. There seems to be no way around the fact that two versions of Night VII exist. And — perhaps the problem that caused Blake to abandon the poem — the climactic apocalypse of Night IX comes on with minimal foreshadowing or preparation. It is a considerable work, profoundly mythopoeic, but also only a fragment of what might have been.

The Book of UrizenIn 1800, Blake began a curious relationship with a new employer, a writer named William Hayley. Nowadays Hayley’s considered a minor figure, known mainly for his association with Blake. At the time, he was perhaps as well-known as any English poet then alive; he’d been offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1790, and declined it. He wrote poetry, plays, essays, and various nonfiction projects including biographies. Blake was to help him with some of the last, engraving illustrations for a biography of Hayley’s friend, the poet William Cowper. To do this, Blake moved to Sussex, to a cottage in Felpham near Hayley’s home. He would go on to illustrate Hayley’s 1805 Ballads Founded on the Anecdotes of Animals while there as well.

Unfortunately, the friendship between Blake and Hayley didn’t last, or at least not without its troubles. Some of it may have been class-based; Hayley was university-educated and independently wealthy, a clear contrast from Blake the Cockney tradesman, and it seems some of Hayley’s associates saw Blake as effectively Hayley’s servant. Certainly Blake seems to have been frustrated with the limits of the well-meaning Hayley’s vision. He decided to move back to London in 1803, but his time with Hayley had at least reintroduced him to the poetry of John Milton. Milton, in fact, would become the theme of one of Blake’s next great epics, which he may have begun at about this time.

But before beginning that poem, and indeed before moving back to London, Blake was involved in an incident that appears to have traumatised him; at any rate, like his contentious relationship with Hayley, it left its mark on his later work. On August 12, Blake found a man in his garden. The man, a soldier named John Scofield, had been invited in by Blake’s gardener, but Blake didn’t know that. The result was a quarrel, and the result of that was that Blake grabbed Scofield by the neck and back and marched him through the streets to his billet. Scofield took Blake to court, claiming that Blake had uttered seditious oaths during the fight. Blake was not at risk of being hanged, though he might have been fined or imprisoned. At any rate, he was found not guilty. Still, although released, the stress of the incident clearly affected him.

The Song of LosIt was after his return to London that he wrote the last lines of “The Four Zoas” at the same time as he began his new epic — two new epics, as he engraved two title pages, both dated 1804. One was for a poem to be called Milton, which he would compose in bits and pieces over the next six or seven years. The other, Jerusalem, was to be longer. Although some sort of draft of it seems to have existed in 1811, Blake only produced a fully-engraved version in 1820. Milton consisted of 50 plates; Jerusalem of 100. Together they represent Blake’s final, and perhaps greatest, statement of his mythology.

Milton depicts the voyage of the spirit of John Milton from his resting place in Eternity back to this world to unite with his Emanations — the women of his life, and the female part of himself. In doing so, Milton’s spirit, falling to earth, also ultimately unites with Blake in his cottage at Felpham. Blake appears here to be recording one of his visions; certainly the incident inciting Milton to return to earth from the afterlife is Milton’s hearing a bard’s song recounting a conflict between the sons of Los that closely mirrors the conflict between Blake and Hayley (from Blake’s perspective).

Jerusalem is a strange poem filled with concentrated symbolism. Perhaps at times too concentrated; there are long lists of people, places, and nations, made to correspond with other lists of people, places, and nations. Though a small percentage of the whole, it’s one of the few aspects of Blake’s work that can seem arid.

The Book of AhaniaAs a whole, though, the poem’s an incredible synthesis of Blake’s mythology and life. Scofield turns up here, as Hayley did in Milton (and does again in Jerusalem), and it feels natural — because there’s little to them beyond the name and the essentials of what they meant to Blake. Scofield’s an unjust accuser. Hayley is an unctuous Satan. Blake has reduced them to their mythic core. The fact that they play a key role in his biography is interesting from a critical point of view, and interesting in considering the relevance of his biography to his fantasy, but not necessary to know.

Ultimately, in Jerusalem, Blake created the convincing vision of the apocalypse that he struggled with in “The Four Zoas,” presenting his core myth in its fullest form: the fall of Albion, and his eventual recovery and reunion with his emanation, Jerusalem, the symbol of liberty. It is a complex, dense, and challenging poem, but immensely rewarding. Fantasy and realism, like every other contrary, dissolve in Blake’s powerful vision.

Sadly, that vision never received its due recognition during Blake’s life. He was befriended and supported during his last years by a group of young artists called the Ancients, but at his death in 1827 his genius in both poetry and visual art was largely unacknowledged. In fact, an attempt in 1809 to hold an exhibition of his art met savage reviews from the critics, one of whom referred to Blake as an “unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.” (An interesting short film about the exhibit, with Ray Winstone perfectly cast as Blake, can be seen here.)

The Book of LosBlake wrote a catalogue for the exhibition, and some passages from that catalogue are worth looking at here, along with some of his other comments on his visual art, as we consider his relationship to fantasy and realism. To start with, his criticism of other writers whose works he illustrated are perceptive: “… I instance Shakspeare’s Witches in Macbeth. Those who dress them for the stage, consider them as wretched old women, and not as Shakspeare intended, the Goddesses of Destiny … Shakspeare’s Fairies also are the rulers of the vegetable world, and so are Chaucer’s; let them be so considered, and then the poet will be understood, not else.”

So he understood the fantastic in Shakespeare in a way that was unusual for his time. But in his own work as well, he insisted on going beyond the real: “Poetry consists in these conceptions; and shall Painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representations of merely mortal and perishing substances, and not be as poetry and music are, elevated into its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception? No, it shall not be so! Painting, as well as poetry and music, exists and exults in immortal thoughts.”

These immortal thoughts are not vague imaginings. The true vision is concrete. “The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision as real and existing men whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see does not imagine at all.”

MiltonThis is significant, I think, in light of something Blake wrote a little later, about his painting A Vision of the Last Judgment: “I assert for My self that I do not behold the Outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action it is as the Dirt upon my feet No part of Me. What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

Northrop Frye, in his book Fearful Symmetry, had what I thought was a perceptive analysis of what Blake is talking about here. As Frye explains it, the round disk of fire, the guinea-sun, is one vision of reality — the external reality that everyone, every viewing eye, can agree exists. The sun of the heavenly host is the sun Blake, as a visionary, sees in vision. It is effectively unique to him. The guinea-sun is the lowest-common-denominator sun. The heavenly-host sun is the sun that Blake knows to be true, and must communicate in his art even if it’s not — especially if it’s not — perceptible to anyone else. His statement here is an insistence on the significance of the role of the artist: the poet as prophet. The artist, to be a true artist, must depict something greater than common reality. It is the task of the artist to see, and present in art, a more profound, truer, and powerful organisation of the world.

It is a slightly different angle on the question of mimesis versus the fantastic than we usually get. But not perhaps that different. It is the overlay of the personal artistic vision upon realism, over realism, to the extent that the symbolic or purely imaginative can as it were overwrite or rewrite reality within the work of art. In other words, Blake knew that his work was not mimetic, and spurned mimetic art. He believed there was something more important. That artwork that hewed to an artist’s vision, to the artist’s sense of art, was greater than the replication of mere objective reality. Blake’s entire artistic corpus is a testament to this belief, and an example of what results from a strong enough vision.

JerusalemIt is perhaps possible to argue that the Romantics that followed Blake intuitively felt the same thing to be true. And perhaps also possible to argue that fantasy fiction, fantastika of all kinds, is built on the insistence that an artist’s vision is more relelvant to art than the “outward creation” of the real world. This is not to say that all fantasy is born of a strong artistic vision. But I think Blake identifies something key in good writing generally, and good fantasy writing especially: the quality of vision that overrides realism.

Any writer must create a world in their art. Many do so in emulation of the real world. Not all, though, and Frye began his book-length study of Blake by observing that Blake was not the only major poet to create his own personal world of symbols. As Frye quoted Valéry: “Cosmology is a literary art.” In making a world in their art, the fantasist decides to give his or her own vision primacy over the consensual world of everyday sight. That understanding may be the primary lesson Blake has for later fantasists, along with the validation of that understanding in the incredible body of work he created.

In the years since his death, Blake has become increasingly important, and a significant influence on later writers, from Alan Moore to Peter Ackroyd to Alasdair Gray to Allen Ginsberg. One of his lyrics, under the name “Jerusalem,” was famously set to music by Sir Hubert Parry (as it happens, a loose version of the same lyric also turned up on Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson’s heavily Blake-influenced album The Chemical Wedding). Almost two hundred years after his death, Blake has both the canonical status and the broad popular relevance that eluded him in life. I think his work is also a key foundation for modern fantasy. And I think that not only his specific mythic and mythopoeic vision, but his sense of the importance of vision, is directly relevant in understanding the impulse to the fantastic, in understanding what fantasy does, and why that’s worth doing. My argument is that in all this, Blake belongs with the major Romantic poets.

And in my next post, I’ll be applying that argument to the Romantic who seems at first glance to have nothing to say about the fantastic at all.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.


  1. Fascinating post, I enjoyed it immensely.

    So imagine my utter disappointment when I went out to the Blake archive you’ve linked to there at the end, only to hit an error every time I try and view one of the images.

    I have the latest version of java, and even tried it in “Compatibility mode” but no joy.

    Anyone else having a similar problem, or more importantly, had it, and was able to correct it?

    Yes, I know, you are not their tech support, but on the off chance others follow-up that link this morning …

    I’m really glad you’ve resumed making these posts. My knowledge of the past (passed?) masters is woefully lacking. Signs of a misspent youth I suppose.

    Thank you for your efforts. These must be a long slog to compose. I look forward to the next one.

    Comment by Gruud - August 1, 2012 8:52 am

  2. Since I’m guessing you’d really hoped for a comment that was actually referencing the subject material … ^_^

    Do you think Blake’s repeated returns and refinements to his Cosmology were intended purely as framework for his writings, or do you think he was working toward a personal Cosmology to replace what the Christianity of the time may not have been giving him?

    Put another way, was he world building or soul searching?

    I made a great flea market find a few weeks ago, Joseph Campbell’s (Bill Moyers’) the Power of Myth for $7.50, and in it I find a recurring refrain (paraphrasing here)

    “The reason for the moral and ethical confusion of today is that the old myths (presumably Judeo-Christian-Islamic) are no longer working for us, but no other myths have come forth to take their place, leaving “us” foundering, searching for answers that can take their place.”

    Building on that, I wonder how many writers today find themselves in similar straits, with their world building straying over into a bit of soul searching all their own as they craft their own Cosmologies.

    Keeping in mind that the fictional religions presented within a work may not necessarily match the “true” Cosmology the author has prepared to underlay the work.


    Comment by Gruud - August 1, 2012 9:17 am

  3. Hi, Gruud! Thanks for the comments.

    I had problems too with getting the pictures at the Blake Archive to work, so I put links to other collections of the illustrated pages through the piece. I thought the Archive was still useful for its collection of text, though. Specifically, if you go to the main page and click on “Resources for Further Research,” you have a link to an edition of The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. That’s just the words, not a full reproduction of the images, but I hope still useful.

    I think the question of how exactly Blake saw his cosmology is really interesting. I suspect he probably saw it as more than “a story,” and more than a framework for his writing. But other than the end of Milton, I’m not sure that he ever spoke of seeing Los, Orc, Urizen, and so on in his visions. Still, I think he saw himself as writing something that was essentially ‘true’ — or maybe he was working in a psychological space where it was difficult to tell what was literally true, where the resonances and phrases that came to him seemed to have meaning and therefore had to be set down.

    I do think the Christianity of his time really didn’t have much appeal for him; he had some good words to say for Methodism, which in those years was the most populist, energetic form of Christianity, but on the whole his ideals fairly strongly diverged from established churches. For a time he was fascinated by Emmanuel Swedenborg, an eccentric mystic loosely in the Christian tradition, though he turned against Swedenborg before he wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake also had a fair amount of time for another mystic, Jacob Boehme. So that kind of approach, that direct appreciation of God, seems to have spoken to him. But it’s clear that writing, poetry, was more important to him: “Any man of mechanical talents may from the writings of Paracelsus or Jacob Behmen, produce ten thousand volumes of equal value with Swedenborg’s[;] and from those of Dante or Shakespear, an infinite number,” he wrote in the Marriage.

    I really do think that cosmology and soul-searching become, at some point, the same exercise. It’s difficult for me to imagine a writer basing a whole novel around a thought-experiment. I mean, I can see somebody starting out to do that, but I’d think the more work went into the project, the more the writer can’t help but project something of themselves into the work.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - August 2, 2012 1:35 am

  4. […] and Germany before returning to England to consider the Gothic. Last time, I looked closely at the work of William Blake. And in this post (and its sequel) I want to consider perhaps the least overtly fantastic of all […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Romanticism and Fantasy: William Wordsworth, Part One - August 24, 2012 6:10 am

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