An English visionary

The new year will bring the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake. Philip Pullman explains

In 1962 or thereabouts, when I was a young boy intoxicated by the sounds that poetry makes, I came across Allen Ginsberg's "Howl". I read it with astonishment and with an almost sensual delight. Having become drunk on "Howl", I moved on to other poems by Ginsberg, notably "Sunflower Sutra". Praising the beauty of the dusty old plant he sees in the wasteland of a San Francisco dock, with its

corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb . . .

Ginsberg evokes an earlier poet who had celebrated the same flower:

I rushed up enchanted – it was my first

sunflower, memories of Blake – my visions . . .

I remain grateful to Ginsberg for several things, not least for having pointed the way to a greater poet. In my search for the sort of visionary intensity I'd found in "Howl" I followed his lead towards Blake, and bought the only edition I could afford, a little paperback selection edited by Ruthven Todd. I carried it everywhere; I have it still. It's on the desk beside me now, its paper yellowing and fragile, its cover as battered and grimy as that sunflower of Ginsberg's. I'd let many other and more costly books perish before failing to save that one. I read every word over and over and learned many of the poems by heart. Some of my first attempts to write were imitations of the great lyrics.

I am not a Blake scholar, and there are large stretches of the prophetic books that I have never read and probably never shall. But it was not scholarship that lured me on: it was intoxication. Blake's world is large and complex enough to provide endless matter for the delusions of the floridly paranoid as well as for academic study. He had the precious gift of expressing that complexity of thought in lines of unequalled force and limpid clarity:

It works as poetry always does, on the ear and in the mouth, before it lets itself be disen tangled by the mind. There is some great poetry which works like that, but which when disentangled leaves little but a delicate fragrance: Tennyson's "The splendour falls on castle walls" is an example, and so is Edward Lear's "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat". But the best of Blake's lyrics, when examined for their intellectual content, disclose tough, dense and sinewy argument, always surprising, always original, always disturbing:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

The reason they work so well, the reason they are unforgettable, is that they have an incantatory power unlike anything else in English.

What I've come to cherish most of all in Blake, as I've grown older, is a quality that (to use his own term) I have to call prophetic. It is prophetic in two senses: it foretells, and, like the words of the Old Testament prophets, it warns, it carries a moral force. Furthermore, without being a Blakeian (except in the sense that I follow his own proclamation "I must create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's"), I admit that the words of Blake have joined a very small number of other texts as the best expression of the most important things I believe. If I didn't believe them, I wouldn't be able to work. How I came to believe them is another story, but I seem to have been feeling my way towards the principles set out below all my life. When I needed to find words for them, I found that Blake had already said what I wanted to say more clearly and powerfully than I ever could.

. . . and shew you all alive

The world, where every particle of dust

breathes forth its joy.

To begin with, then, this world, this extra ordinary universe in which we live and of which we are made, is material; and it is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures.

Man has no Body distinct from his Soul;

for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five senses . . .

Things arise from matter-in-love-with-matter that are not themselves matter. Thoughts emerge from the unimaginable, the non-disentangle-able complexity of the body and the brain, thoughts that are not material, though they have analogues in material processes. You cannot say where one ends and the other begins, because each is an aspect of the other.

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense World of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

The consciousness that emerges from matter demonstrates that consciousness, like mass, is a normal property of the physical world, and much more widely present than human beings think.

2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

3. Energy is Eternal Delight.

Bodily experience underlies, sustains, inspires, and cherishes mental experience. The mental templates on which are formed such things as metaphor, the very ways we understand and interpret our experience, are based on the ways our bodies move around in the world and interact with other physical entities.

A dog starv’d at his Master's Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State

The visionary and the imaginative are not different realms from the political, but the very ground on which politics stands, the nourish-ing soil from which political awareness and action grow.

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day.

The fullest and most important subject of our study and our work is human nature and its relationship to the universe.

Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

Lastly, we should never forget that the work we do is infinitely worth doing.

I know that this credo of mine is highly selective, and that it would be possible to put together passages from Blake to support a quite different set of propositions. What do I care about that? I have never doubted that Blake was larger than my understanding of him.

Blake was a poet and artist before he was anything else, and he worked as all writers and artists do, feeling his way through the medium (the words, the forms, the colours) to the truth. There is an astonishing example of that in the draft of "The Sick Rose" in Blake's notebook, now in the British Library. In the last line but one, he originally wrote "his dark secret love" - and then crossed out "his" and wrote "her". Later he changed it back, but there was a stage in the composition of that poem, which is so simple and so rich in implication, when he might have turned it quite another way. The dense and disturbing lyrics in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience were not just pretty ways of dressing up ideas that had already been fully worked out in the medium of prose: they were the very hammer and anvil of thinking itself.

I have not even mentioned Blake's illuminations. Some of his great designs would be enough by themselves to ensure that he was remembered among the most powerful and original artists England has ever produced: Glad Day, the joyful and exuberant image of a nude male figure extending his arms wide against an aureole of rosy light - perhaps, Kathleen Raine said, "the first work to show those inimitable Blakeian qualities of joyous energy and elegance of form"; Newton, the image made famous recently by Eduardo Paolozzi's giant bronze sculpture in the British Library piazza; and perhaps the most well-known of all, The Ancient of Days, the aged creator, white hair and beard streaming in the wind, crouching tensely to lean down and spread the arms of a great pair of compasses open on the face of the deep.

I can't be objective about Blake; I can't be judicious and measured, weighing his merits against his deficiencies and coming to a balanced and thoughtful conclusion. The fact is, I love him. I am as intoxicated at 60 as I was at 16. As I've grown older, in fact, my wonder has only increased. Next year, we reach the 250th anniversary of his birth. If England cannot mark this year with proper celebration and tribute to one of her very greatest sons, then England should be ashamed of herself.

Blake : an inspiration

Patti Smith, musician

Responding to injustice in the world through songs is something I learned from Blake at a very early age. That's one debt I owe to him . . .

I love the story of William Blake and his wife, Catherine. When he was young he fell in love with another girl, who had had a lot of men. He wanted someone constant, and she called him a fool. He was very upset, and went for a long walk, and he eventually reached the house of a farmer. He was invited to sit down at the table, where he was served by a very simple, honest-looking woman. He liked her instantly and told her the whole story, and she was very sympathetic. He asked: do you pity me? And she said yes. So he said, well I love you . . .

Despite all his financial difficulties, and the lack of recognition for his work, Blake succeeded in doing what he would wish us all to do with our lives, and that is to embody God. Even if he did not prosper materially, he was extraordinarily rich in a spiritual sense.

From a speech given to the Blake Society

Blake : an inspiration

Tracy Chevalier, writer

My first contact with William Blake was through reading Songs of Innocence and of Experience at university in America, where few are familiar with his work. The Songs have an unaffected power that stuck with me. Afterwards I often found myself murmuring "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright" under my breath; or "I wander thro' each charter'd street,/Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,/And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe." I particularly loved those last lines when I first moved to London, for Blake captured the exhausted desperation I often saw in the faces of fellow commuters on cold, grey days.

It was when I first saw his illustrations at the Tate that Blake really began to open up to me. In those days his coloured prints were kept in glass cases, with cloth covers to protect them from overexposure to light. Uncovering each one felt like unwrapping a present, and I couldn't take my eyes off Newton hunched over his drawing, Nebuchadnezzar crawling on hands and knees, God judging Adam with a stern pointed finger.

Then and now, my response to Blake's work has been an uneasy combination of awe and fear. His words are often angry, or obscure, or both. His illustrations are beautiful but also dark and apocalyptic. People are rarely having fun, but fighting losing battles in a cold world, railing against an indifferent or vindictive God. And yet, there is something alive in his work that draws me back: what Blake called "contraries", fire in the dark, sweetness amidst dread. These contrasts, in both word and image, make me think, and look, and think again. His poems and pictures never get resolved, and live the longer for it.

Tracy Chevalier's "Burning Bright", a novel about Blake, is published in March by HarperCollins

Blake : an inspiration

Chris Orr, printmaker

Many years ago at a private view in a gallery in Notting Hill, I encountered a drunken Scottish poet who loudly accused the English of never producing a single decent poet or painter. I breathed the name William Blake and he shrank away in sober horror; for the truth is that Blake is a towering figure in all his creations, not the least printmaking, in which he succeeded in turning the mundane industry of etching and engraving into the pure voice of an artist.

It is Blake who has shown that the printmaking process is more than just a means to an end, but is a beautiful end in itself. There is something elemental about drawing with a metal point on to a copper plate and then submersing into the bubbling acid to etch the line to a sufficient depth to hold ink, and nothing can compare with the joy of pulling a print, a moment of revelation as the paper is gently peeled back to reveal the printed and reversed image.

Over the years as my career developed along the lines of a self-publishing artist, writer, printer and salesman, I settled into a pale image of Blake. In 1992 he overwhelmed me and I made a series of etchings, Chris Orr's Life of W Blake.

You might assume that, with more than 500 years of printing history, there is nothing new to be discovered in etching. You would be wrong. The subtlety and nuances of this medium are potentially infinite. Blake connected back to one of the important roots of etching in alchemy, and clearly shows us that the artist may bring to this process a poetic, innovative spirit. My own, sub-Blakeian description of all printmaking is "poetry through mechanics".

Chris Orr is professor of printmaking at the Royal College of Art and is a Royal Academician

This article first appeared in the 18 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year Special 2006