William Blake’s Reward
Twirled between forefinger and thumb, the daisy became a wheel in the little boy’s imagination; arcing overhead at arm’s length, it was the sun wheeling across a pale blue sky, its golden disk radiating white hot rays as warm as love. “These asters are stars,” the boy announced to no one in particular, collecting a few for his mum. As the boy went strolling down the lane, he vividly recalled the preacher’s reading in church that morning, high in voice and quavering:
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. (Ezekiel 1:4-6)
A wheel turned, and the boy’s mind spanned six thousand years. Something called him! And his heart began to beat as a butterfly fluttered by. And he looked, and, behold, a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars, right there on London’s Peckham Rye. The boy raced home to tell his mum and deliver the sunny flowers he had picked for her. Mortified upon hearing of his angelic visitation, Catherine Blake tried to beat some sense into her dreamy son, yet she did not succeed, and he would speak of this Vision for all his life.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.
— “The Garden of Love”
by William Blake
William’s father, the hosier and haberdasher James Blake, was fond of indulging his son’s love of art, so he supplied the boy with funds sufficient to purchase prints and begin a collection of his own. One art dealer applauded the boy’s good taste while another tired of his persistent demands for the works of Michelangelo and finally shooed the boy away. William then began taking art lessons at Shipley’s Drawing School, where he copied the likes of Raphael and Albrecht Dürer, but his preference was always for the Florentines, especially Michelangelo. His classmates laughed and mocked his taste for what was by 1767 hopelessly passé, but ten-year-old William remained undeterred and steadfast in his admiration for Michelangelo’s stark images of divinity and carnality, deity and humanity. As the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats would later explain:
The limitation of [Blake’s] view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s eye, when exalted by inspiration, were ‘eternal existences,’ symbols of divine essences, he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments. To wrap them about in reflected lights was to do this, and to dwell over-fondly upon any softness of hair or flesh was to dwell upon that which was least permanent and least characteristic, for ‘The great and golden rule of art, as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp and wiry the boundary-line, the more perfect the work of art, and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism and bungling. […] Great inventors in all ages knew this. […] Raphael and Michael Angelo [sic] and Albrecht Dürer are known by this and this alone.’
Then, quite suddenly, at the age of 14, William was apprenticed to the city’s leading engraver, James Basire. Father and son had been hoping William could attend the Royal Academy of Art to pursue painting; however, William understood that the family was facing tough times, so he made the decision on his own to be indentured to Basire for a period of seven years, during which time he was forbidden to pursue such entertainments as gambling, imbibing libations, and attending the theatre. It has been opined that submitting to this apprenticeship was the single greatest mistake of Blake’s life, for engraving was a service to be purchased by true artists, not pursued. Yet the lad apparently saw that engraving could be his art. At the same time, he could always support his family with income from an established trade. Furthermore, he could—and did—attend the Royal Academy upon completion of his period of indentured servitude, having thoroughly learned the craft of his chosen art. Besides, how many British painters can we name from that period? None. Blake had no interest in painting landscapes of royal estates, never mind the portraits of wealthy merchants, and it’s not like 18th century London had a Sistine Chapel in need of fresh paint. So he accepted the call, and crossed the threshold into an artistic world that remained largely unexplored.
Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. (Ezekiel 1:15-16)
Blake claimed to have given up poetry in pursuit of engraving, and he had effectively postponed his training as an artist, yet both his poetry and his art would come to be shaped by the possibilities and constraints of the engraving process itself, in which the etching of a copper plate holds ink for transference to paper. Like a wheel in the middle of a wheel, Blake was utilizing the technology of his day to recapture the glory of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, in which miniatures of saints and angels were painted in gold and silver and lapis lazuli to adorn passages in the Bible and biblical commentary. And Blake saw clearly the alchemical symbolism inherent in his calling. Where Isaac Newton had dreamt of turning quicksilver into gold, Blake envisioned the creation of a metaphysical art through his own unique subtractive process in applying acid to copper plates:
But first 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.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.
— from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
by William Blake
As the visionary poet and influential critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge would declare, the poet’s primary task is to “disembody the soul of fact,” and it was in this regard that Blake excelled as both poet and artist. For Blake had double vision and could see the world in two ways: as the factual image that impinges upon the retina when matter reflects light, and the spiritual image that the mind’s eye sees upon discerning the significance of that same image.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
— from “Auguries of Innocence”
by William Blake
Coleridge would go on to assert that “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself.” And this is the very movement that Blake impels through his “wheels within wheels,” the cyclical interactions between world and mind: reader, text, and poem.
And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. (Ezekiel 1:19-20)
For we are, each of us, wheels within wheels of perception and interpretation, observation and discernment, remembrance and imagining as we journey through each day of life on this revolving planet, orbiting the sun “among the Starry Wheels which revolve heavily in the mighty Void.” Only when we come to see the metaphors in these signs can we sense some truth in the facts. Zooming in from the macro to the micro, from the physical to the psychological, we are composed of reentrant neurons firing recursively to construct a reality that miraculously shifts “upward” in a strange loop, a “paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop” that we call the “I” and come to think of as our own: our selves.
The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is God himself
The Divine Body } ישע Jesus we are his Members
— from Laocoön
by William Blake
Only when we see some image woven in the text—the patterns in splotches of ink or pixels of light that form the characters that combine to become words, phrases, clauses, and more—can we experience the reality of a poem. The reader loops through every set of text to build context, recursively evaluating and critiquing in light of previously read material and preexisting preconceptions, to ultimately reach a new level of understanding such that, just as the seer Ezekiel reveals, the spirit of the living creature is in the wheels.
After successfully serving his term of indenture, the 21-year-old Blake submitted a drawing and letter of recommendation to the Keeper of the Royal Academy of Arts, George Michael Moser, a Swiss artist who was highly skilled in gold chasing and enameling, as well as engraving. Blake was admitted to the Academy, and Moser took the aspiring artist under his wing. He attempted to cure the young man of his lifelong obsession with the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, which he termed “hard, stiff, dry, and unfinished,” by introducing his student to the Baroque sensuality of Peter Paul Rubens and the fashionable French portraiture of Madame Le Brun, who was in vogue at the time. Blake came unhinged, as he felt the integrity of his spiritual aesthetic was being threatened while at the same time his own work was ignored and even ridiculed.
For Blake, the only subject worthy of the true artist was “God himself,” and that subject was to be found not in “the abstract void” of time and space but in “the minute particulars of life,” which are perceived in the Imagination, built up from sensation and emotion. As Yeats would write, “[T]he more he was absorbed in emotion; and, above all, in emotion escaped from the impulse of bodily longing and the restraints of bodily reason, in artistic emotion; the nearer did he come to Eden’s ‘breathing garden,’ to use his beautiful phrase, and to the unveiled face of God. No worthy symbol of God existed but the inner world, the true humanity, to whose various aspects he gave many names, ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘Eden,’ ‘The Divine Vision,’ ‘The Body of God,’ ‘The Human Form Divine,’ ‘The Divine Members’”:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
by William Blake
Always out of step with the world around him, Blake left the Academy and pursued his art and his craft, writing and painting and engraving. He repeatedly fell in love and repeatedly had his heart broken in return. Then he met Catherine Boucher, who fell in love with his broken heart. “Do you pity me?” he asked, “then I love you for that.” Though his father disapproved, as the bride was likely illiterate and brought nothing in the form of dowry, Will and Kate were married on August 18, 1782, and they loved each other for the rest of their lives. They remained childless, however, and Will supported them primarily by engraving the works of others while pursuing his own work, exhibiting to lukewarm reviews at the Royal Academy from time to time. He opened a print shop that might have thrived at another time, but England was not buying prints just then, so he had to close it. He cultivated a number of friendships along the way: some earnestly tried to promote his work, some tried to take advantage of his innocence, many thought him a little touched in the head as he had a habit of speaking his innermost feelings. “The thing I have most at Heart,” he declared, “more than life, or all that seems to make life comfortable without it, is the Interest of True Religion & Science.” And for Blake, True Religion was the greatest use of one’s God-given talent, as Jesus taught in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), while Science was always spiritual knowledge, which was, for Blake, the ultimate definition of the term.
When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. (Ezekiel 1:21)
Blake’s earliest official biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, recalled an occasion on which several leading socialites and artists were gathered at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Aders in London’s Euston Square:
‘The other evening,’ said Blake, in his usual quiet way, ‘taking a walk, I came to a meadow and, at the farther corner of it, I saw a fold of lambs. Coming nearer, the ground blushed with flowers; and the wattled cote and its wooly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty. But I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but beautiful sculpture.’ [Mrs. Aders], thinking this a capital holiday show for her children, eagerly interposed: ‘I beg pardon, Mr Blake, but may I ask where you saw this?’ ‘Here, madam,’ answered Blake, touching his forehead.
With assistance from influential patrons of the Royal Academy, Blake designed a series of engravings for a new edition of a popular book-length poem by the Scotsman Robert Blair called The Grave. The artwork is stunning. In one example, “The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life,” Blake manages to render the ethereal soul as though it were carved from stone—if stone could be alchemically transformed into spirit. The folds in the dead man’s burial shroud are as soft as satin, and the mountains seen through a window in the background are as finely realized as the landscape of any naturalist. Blake achieves these imaginative realities, these eternal existences, solely through his own infernal method, by corrosives, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. Then as now, those who saw the images were astounded, but the publisher, Robert Cromek, reneged on the deal, and Blake’s engravings were not used in the volume.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. (Job 1:6)
Blake was crestfallen; nevertheless, he continued to exercise his talents, next by painting Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims in tempera, reaching back to the Middle Ages to present the Father of English Literature’s company of 29 sondry folk as a “great army of God” made up of every human character, all marching toward a new Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. His initial sketch for the painting was so dramatic that Cromek again ripped him off by giving the idea to Thomas Stothard, whose “chocolate box” rendition sold thousands of prints, while Blake saw not a farthing from it.
So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:12)
Then Cromek took Blake’s drawings for The Grave and presented them to the Queen, who was delighted and requested a dedication. Blake enthusiastically obliged and signed the frontispiece along with a little poesy: O Shepherdess of England’s Fold / Behold this Gate of Pearl and Gold. He also included an invoice for four guineas (roughly equivalent to about $5,000 today). Blake undoubtedly thought he would finally be recompensed for his previous labor, but Cromek was aghast at his effrontery and refused to deliver it to the Queen. Few artists have suffered as much harm to their reputation and livelihood as William Blake suffered at the conniving hands of Robert Cromek.
Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, Blessed be the Name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)
Blake decided to eschew the Royal Academy and hang an exhibition of frescoes and drawings in the home of his brother James, above the family hosiery shop. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a large-scale depiction of the last battle of King Arthur called The Ancient Britons, which has since been lost. It was surrounded by those pieces that Blake felt best represented his oeuvre, including his Canterbury Pilgrims. The half-crown price of admission (about $10 today) also got the patron a copy of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, in which he explained the works and extolled his vision, while simultaneously excoriating the work of others. As might be expected, the art world stayed away in droves, but Leigh Hunt, a critic writing for The Examiner saw fit to pan the exhibition anyway, publicly declaring the artist insane, for which he would find himself in much of Blake’s subsequent poetry, portrayed as the very symbol of Satan in human form.
My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat. (Job 30:30)
In spite of it all, Blake did not cease from Mental Fight, writing and engraving between 1815 and 1820 his last published work, Jerusalem, in which he inscribes the City of God on the body of a giant named Albion, the symbol of Man, who becomes a map bearing the place names of 19th century England. “Oxford Street is in Jerusalem,”  he told one astonished acquaintance; Jerusalem is in the mind of Man. He and Kate were both suffering in their old age. Will nursed Kate back from an illness to health; then he severely scalded his leg and took to bed himself. A mutual friend showed a copy of Songs of Innocence to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was impressed with the audacity of Blake’s work and asked to meet the poet. He found Blake working in bed, with sketches, paintings, and poetry strewn all about him and around the room. The two spiritual poets were said to be like “congenial beings of another sphere, breathing for a while on our earth,” and Coleridge greatly admired Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment, a large piece that Blake had hung over his bed. The painting clearly harkens back to Blake’s days at Shipley’s Drawing School, copying the works of Michelangelo, especially his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. This theme of Christ dispensing judgment to the quick and the dead had become prominent among Blake’s later works, and he adapted Michelangelo’s vision into several versions in various media.
For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed, then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction that he may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man. (Job 33:14-17)
In The Day of Judgement, which Blake had engraved for Blair’s Grave, a cursory glance would suggest that Blake simply copied Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel altar piece, yet closer inspection reveals a great deal more than his Renaissance mentor ever dreamed. In Michelangelo, we see a snapshot of souls randomly ascending and descending across the skyscape above Hell’s horizon, some rising but most falling precipitously from cumulus clouds, the centermost of which supports the resurrected Christ, who strides resolutely into the scene while busily meting out judgment. In Blake, though, we see a great wheel in the movement of souls, ascending on the left (that is, on the right hand of Christ, who is facing us) and descending on the right in clockwise rotation. And rather than striding on cloud, Blake’s Christ is seated upon a throne, an open book in his lap. His throne is supported by columns of flame emanating from below and guarded by Ezekiel’s four-winged angels raging East and West and North and South at the hub of this great wheel of souls. Zooming out then, we discern the shape of a skull emerging from the structure: Michelangelo’s clouds have become the cranium; the fiery column becomes a primitive brainstem, with Blake’s angels in the spinal cord. Look yet again and we see that Michelangelo’s clouds have evolved into the folds of a human brain, each ridge a gyrus of gray matter surrounding the “Imagination (Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever).” The wheel of souls becomes a parade of thoughts to be kept or discarded by the interpreter, that is, by Christ the Imagination. The quick ascend to the cerebral heavens, where personified thoughts of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love embrace one another in higher consciousness, while the dead fall in a heap to be subsumed by the collective unconscious. Sonly all in your imagination, dim, with “pale blake,” as the Irish stream-of-consciousness author James Joyce would write in his recursive myth of Finns again waking: Poor little brittle magic nation, dim of mind! And we return our attention to Blake’s Imagination, the Word or Logos, his Christ, holding a chart expanded, and we understand that Christ’s Book is the “yet unwritten page in a new cycle,” another turning of the wheel: A way a lone a last a loved a long the [Da capo] riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Or Jerusalem. Or London. Ourselves.
For every encounter with art is a journey of recirculation. Every reading is a Hero’s Journey in which Reader crosses the threshold into the Special World of some Text, there to engage the Text in an Ordeal of mentation: wheels within wheels of cogitation recursively constructing meaning from signs and symbols, selecting denotations and associated connotations, while continually looping through context and prior learning to finally evoke the Poem, an event that resides solely in the Imagination, the mind of the Reader. Or, as Blake would say, in the Body of God. Thus every Reader is a Hero whose Reward is a Poem to be brought back to the Ordinary World and carried forward into the next cycle of life, the journey of another day—another Day of Judgment.
Therefore, as Yeats would one day find through Blake’s work:
Christ was indeed no more than the supreme symbol of the artistic imagination, in which, with every passion wrought to perfect beauty by art and poetry, we shall live, when the body has passed away for the last time; but before that hour man must labour through many lives and many deaths. ‘Men are admitted into heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion but realities of intellect from which the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory. The fool shall not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy. Holiness is not the price of entering into heaven. Those who are cast out are all those who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other people’s lives by the various arts of poverty and cruelty of all kinds.’ […] Our imaginations are but fragments of the universal imagination, portions of the universal body of God, and as we enlarge our imagination by imaginative sympathy and transform with the beauty and peace of art, the sorrows and joys of the world, we put off the limited mortal man more and more and put on the unlimited ‘immortal man.’ […] We must then be artists in all things, and understand that love and old age and death are first among the arts. In this sense [Blake] insists that ‘Christ’s apostles were artists,’ that ‘Christianity is Art,’ and that ‘the whole business of man is the arts.’ […] True art is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, every colour, every gesture, a signature of some unanalyzable imaginative essence. […] True art is the flame of the last day, which begins for every man, when he is first moved by beauty and which seeks to burn all things until they ‘become infinite and holy.’
And so it was that Blake would spend his remaining days working in bed, painting scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. His 22 engravings for Illustrations of the Book of Job had turned out to be a rare commercial success; in fact, just two months before Blake’s death at age 69, King George IV paid 10 guineas for a copy of his Book of Job, which is now housed in the collection at Windsor Castle Library. Truly, the latter end of Blake’s life was more blessed than his beginning. At the same time, acquaintances such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge were spreading the word that one of England’s greatest artists was living at Fountain Court, just off the Strand in London, near the bending River Thames. Consequently, a stream of young poets and artists did long to go on pilgrimages, the holy blissful martyr for to seek. With unfinished illustrations of Dante scattered about him as he held sway over this devoted company, Blake did not confess greatness, but rather conferred it. One pilgrim, Samuel Palmer, put it this way: “He ennobled poverty, and by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes.”
Northrop Frye, perhaps the 20th century’s most ardent Blakeian scholar, explains the attraction this way:
Blake, by postulating a world of imagination higher than that of sense, indicates a way of closing the gap which is completed by identifying God with human imagination: Man is All Imagination. God is Man & exists in us & we in him. The Eternal Body of Man is The Imagination, that is, God himself…. It manifests itself in his Works of Art (In Eternity All is Vision).
Man in his creative acts and perceptions is God, and God is Man. God is the eternal Self, and the worship of God is self-development.
So, yes: those feet in ancient time did walk upon England’s mountains green. And the Countenance Divine did shine forth upon our clouded hills. They built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land, right there in London, just off the Strand. For, as our glorious illuminator himself revealed:
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
— “The Divine Image”
by William Blake
 Tobias Churton, Jerusalem: the Real Life of William Blake, (London, Watkins Publishing, 2014), 29-33.
 W.B. Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil (public domain book, 2018), 66.
 Churton, 57-62.
 Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: the transactional theory of the literary work (Southern Illinois University, 1994), 28.
 William Blake, Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820)
 Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop (New York, Basic Books, 2007) 102.
 Churton, 79-80.
 Yeats, 73.
 Churton, 91.
 Geoffrey Chaucer, Chaucer’s Major Poetry (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1963), 237.
 Churton, 290-292.
 William Blake, from Jerusalem in The Complete Illuminated Books of William Blake (public domain e-book)
 James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York, Penguin Books, 1939), 563-565.
 Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (Cutchogue, New York, Buccaneer Books, 1976), 278.
 Joyce, 628à3.
 Rosenblatt, 11-12.
 Yeats, 76-77.
 Churton, 325.
 Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 1947), 30.