Fighting a Poverty of the Imagination

To kick off our new Finding Blake website, project creator James Murray-White reflects on what inspired him to create the project and invite others to join him in celebrating the vision of William Blake, a uniquely British radical.

It is engrained in our culture to follow the head from school onwards. I live in Cambridge, where the push to be educated and use the power of a good education to rise up the ladder is in the air. It leaches from the fabric of the traditional university buildings and the new buildings of start-up companies and business centres, the sixth form and village colleges … and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong, just that it is not the only way. Head must follow heart.

A transformation of the inner life

Kathleen Raine, who did so much to promote Blake’s vision through her own life and writings, wrote in her 1970 biography of him: “Blake gradually renounced politics for something more radical: not religion, in the sense of a system of beliefs and observances, but a transformation of the inner life, a rebirth of ‘the true man’. Politics and religion alike came to seem to him an evasion of ‘the one thing needful’.”

William Blake (World of Art Library), by Kathleen Raine (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1970)

I spent a day recently with dear friends who have two wonderful kids. We were out in a nearby village, exploring a new forest school that has recently opened up. The kids who were also exploring were probably kids of academics or, like all of us in this area, affiliated with the University in some way (I make part of my living right now filming University lectures). But here was the opportunity to snuffle through leaves, to make willow sculptures, to climb trees, play on swings, to learn how to make and tend an open fire and to cook potatoes on it: an early chance to play and to create.

Maybe these children, the me’s and the you’s of tomorrow – who will live in a post-Brexit dawn, with different political realities, new leaders, and a capitalist system at breaking point – will learn enough at this forest school, running amongst the trees with curiosity and imagination, to create personal systems of belief, self-sufficiency, and resilience to create a better vision – “to build Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land”.

A vision that shatters

I heard a piece on Radio 4 about homelessness, and the speaker talked of the danger of becoming caught in ‘the poverty of the imagination’, and it struck me that that’s the reason I’m doing this project: using the new grave stone to highlight the immense power of the vision Blake developed and left to the world. It’s a vision that shatters mental slavery and poverty of the heart, can restore and develop vision and intuition, and engender feeling back in our world. Finding our way back to knowing: “and we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”

A friend came by recently and talked of the unique mystical tradition that Blake developed and was part of, and how this is very different from the Eastern mysticism that many of us have sought out over the years, both in the East – in Tibet and, in my case, Mongolia – and through the influx of Tibetan and Thai monks and lamas settling in Europe. Blake’s visions were uniquely rooted within his London life and the three years he lived in Felpham in Sussex, and as far as I know the East was very far from his sphere of influence*. So it’s the unique Britishness of Blake that needs (again, in my view) to be savoured, explored deeply; and my job is to further pull out those shards of light and shining imagination, and bring them to a wider audience.


Notes

* If anyone knows of any research that brings east and west together within Blake’s work, please do let me know!

Poet Kathleen Raine‘s biography, William Blake was published in 1970 as part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art Library series: ‘a classic study of William Blake, a man for whom the arts were not an end in themselves, but expressed his vision of the spiritual drama of the English national being. This volume presents a comprehensive view of Blake’s artistic achievements and a compelling and moving portrait of the life and thought of an extraordinary genius.’

Raine died in 2003, aged 95, and her obituary in the Guardian described her as “a poet who believed in the sacred nature of all life, all true art and wisdom, and her own calling. She knew as a small child that poetry was her vocation. William Blake was her master, and she shared his belief that ‘one power alone makes a poet – imagination, the divine vision’.”

The letter of William Blake to Revd John Trusler is quoted in an essay by Maria de Gonzales de Leon, A letter from the young William Blake in defence of imagination (12/5/17) on the website Faena Aleph; “In one of Blake’s most beautiful letters, the then 20-year-old poet – always uncomfortable with the social conventions of his era – assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he’d commanded had been dictated by ‘my Genius or Angel,’ one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”

The British Library commentary on the letter (the images shown here are taken from their online archive) says that: “In this letter Blake sets out how his mind worked. Particularly the statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, refers to Blake’s eidetic vision – seeing as real and concrete the images which appeared to him as visions. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’ (and here he is referring to works by artists such as Gillray and Rowlandson – the ‘caricature prints’ that have ‘perverted’ Trusler’s eye), while Blake says ‘by these I shall not regulate my proportions’ … On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’; while Blake clearly had a dim view of Trusler’s view of art, calling it ‘caricature’.”

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