“Poetry fettered”, said Blake, “fetters the human race; nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.”
Condemned Traditional Verse-forms
In theory as well as practice, the Romantic Movement began with the smashing of fetters. In his enthusiastic rage, Blake condemned the verse forms which had become traditional. In the preface to Jerusalem he says: “I have produced a variety in every line, both of cadences and number of syllables. Every word and every letter is studied and put into its fit place; the terrific numbers are reserved for the terrific parts, and the mild and gentle for the mild and gentle parts, and the prosaic for inferior parts; all are necessary to each other.”
Opposed to Neo-classical Doctrines
Blake poured scorn upon all that he associated with classicism in art and in criticism. In the preface to Milton, he says: “We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations.” In his comments on Homer and Virgil, he says: “It is the Classics, and not Goths nor Monks that desolate Europe with wars.” The whole critical vocabulary of neo-classical criticism had evidently disgusted him. He cannot endure it. In his favourite Scriptural language, he declares: “Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature and Imitation.” He is irritated by any doctrine that has been handed down in the name of Aristotle. He says, for instance: “Unity is the cloak of folly”, and “Goodness or Badness has nothing to do with character.”
Opposed to the Divorce of Imagination from Reason
Blake reacted strongly against conventional thought and customary morality, against blind laws which extinguish individuality, energy, and spiritual delight. The great tragedy for him was the parting of Reason and Imagination. “The Reasoning Power”, divorced from the Imagination, was:
An abstract objecting power that negatives everything. This is the Spectre of Man, the Holy Reasoning Power, And in its Holiness is closed the Abomination of Desolation.
Believer in Natural Energy
Blake wanted to sweep the hurdles out of the way and release man’s natural energy. “Energy is eternal delight”, he said. He tried to make his “furnaces roar” in order that “Enthusiasm and life may not cease”. Art for him was not a side-issue. It was not a vehicle of formal instruction. It was something that should “move” man in the fullest sense of the term. It was a vision of fundamental living realities, as perceived not by the Reason, but by the eyes of the mind. He denied the validity of ideas imposed by custom. He declared that his vision was a vision of truth.
Some of His Noteworthy Utterances
Some of Blake’s utterances deserve special attention. For instance: “He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God.” “Christianity is Art.” “Human Imagination is the Divine vision and Fruition.” “I come in self-annihilation and the grandeur of Inspiration to cast aside from Poetry all that is not Inspiration.” Here is something from his Milton:
These are the destroyers of Jerusalem…..
Who pretend to Poetry that they may destroy Imagination By imitation of Nature’s images drawn from Remembrance.
According to Blake, no formal rules or external literary laws have any authority. The artist must look within himself. Of many of his poems he said that they were “dictated” to him by spirits. In this most literal sense he held that “inspiration” could come to the aid of a poet. When he was inspired he made use of his Imagination or the Divine Vision. Energy and delight accompany this expression of the Divine Vision.
The Poet’s Aim is to Reveal
Blake holds that the aim of the poet is not to please or to offer rational instruction, but to reveal: to reveal what is given to him as true. This means two things in Blake’s actual practice. It means that he presents through the sensible forms of art that which his “mind’s eye” sees—a world of reality, not as it can be judged by the reason, but apprehended in imaginative experience. This is very different from trying to express in art an explicit account of a system of the universe. When the poet attempts the latter task, he is confusing the task of the artist with the task of the philosopher or theologian. And this, Blake often does. When he gives way to his impulse to expound, he portrays knowledge, not Art. Then he regards Art not as an expression of the individual, but as the representation of eternal truth.
Not the Method of Logic
But when Blake ceases to expound, to argue, to prove, to persuade, and is content to show us his world, to reveal that in experience which is significant to him, then he is functioning as a poet. It does not matter if the portrayal of his imaginative world lends itself to interpretation in the logical terms of a metaphysical or mystical system. A work of art may stimulate logical judgments, but its own method is never that of logic.
Blake the Artist Versus Blake the Poet
And here, precisely, Blake’s theory is better than his poetical practice. He asserts that art depends upon vision, perceptions, and the feeling of energy accompanying it, and not upon ratiocination. Painting and engraving did not offer the same temptation to wander from the path. Thus whilst his poetry is marred by the mystic’s practice of mingling imagery and dogmatism, his painting and engraving more consistently reveal his true artistic genius. There, the artist is seldom confounded with the prophet and preacher.