The Compasses, a dingy pothouse in High Wycombe, was not the most likely place to encounter John Milton, Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was here, in March 1794, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have met a man of ‘the greatest information and most original genius’. His ‘philosophical theories of heaven and hell’ and ideas of ‘daring impiety’ kept the poet awake until three the next morning. As Coleridge said to his brother, ‘Wisdom may be gathered from the maddest flights of imagination, as medicines were stumbled upon in the wild processes of alchemy.’ Reverend George Coleridge, a patient parish priest, would soon be hearing about ‘Pantisocracy’.
Is it possible that Coleridge’s genius was William Blake, author and printer of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? We shall never know: certainly, Blake was a lifelong Londoner who rarely stepped beyond the bounds of the city. Rackety prophets and philosophers thronged the revolutionary 1790s – almost every tavern had a Bible-sodden seer with visions of the millennium. It was a decade when even mild-mannered Richard Price, a 67-year-old Unitarian, could be caricatured as an ‘Atheistical-Revolutionist’ insanely conspiring to overthrow Church and State.
Like Price, William Blake was a ‘counterculture prophet’. Whereas Coleridge’s vision of a ‘blest future’ was drawn from the Book of Revelation, Blake evolved a complex personal mythology combining Christianity with Swedenborg’s prophecies, Paradise Lost, animal magnetism, druidism and, as E P Thompson showed, a dash of English antinomianism. For Blake, too, the moment of apocalyptic breakthrough was less certainly imminent. To his eyes, humanity appeared as the giant figure Albion, trammelled and frustrated by discords, divisions and the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that constrain imagination. In Blake’s visionary universe, Leo Damrosch explains, ‘everything that happens is the shifting imagery of [Albion’s] ongoing nightmare’. Against a lurid backdrop of division and estrangement stands the daemonic figure of Los, Blake’s embodiment of furious creativity, who labours to build the city of imagination, Golgonooza.
Blake’s real subject was the arduous struggle towards Albion’s awakening, traced in his poetry and visual images through multiple refractions, repetitions and metamorphoses (most accessibly so in the early prophecies America and Europe, and also in the paired insights of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience). As Blake’s visionary universe developed, patriarchal Urizen and his fiery antagonist Orc were joined by a host of other characters, assembled to dramatise human psychic experience. These constituents of Albion he called Zoas, and each of them, in turn, was accompanied by a feminine ‘emanation’ and, from time to time, a ‘spectre’ or ‘shadowy double’. Blake and his counterpart, Los, toil to recover from these discordant components of Albion a fresh unity, and thus break on through to a universe hitherto hidden to human senses.
‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s’, Blake declared. The ‘system’ he devised is bafflingly esoteric, as Damrosch concedes, yet it also addresses the most fundamental dilemmas of the human condition: our place in the universe, mortality, our longing for some ultimate source of meaning. A model of clarity and lucid exposition, Eternity’s Sunrise offers the most balanced and comprehensive account of Blake’s imaginative world currently available, showing how the poet sought to combine words and images that would enable readers to bring about a bodily and spiritual transformation. Anyone seeking an approachable, illustrated introduction to Blake’s achievement should take this book into the city that Blake reconfigured as the mythic Jerusalem of his poetry: London.
Eternity’s Sunrise is not a biography of Blake, although it is organised in chronological sequence. Blake’s early life, apprenticeship and various London residences are mapped, as is the country interlude at Felpham that led to his trial for ‘seditious utterance’. Damrosch also offers a caution, to the effect that Blake was ‘a troubled spirit, subject to deep psychic stresses, with what we would now call paranoid and schizoid tendencies’ – in today’s London, not someone to jostle accidentally on the Tube. Blake’s creative energies sprang from a ‘wounding sense of alienation and dividedness’ stemming, in part, from dislocations in his early childhood and estrangement from his brother John, whom he named ‘the evil one’. Throughout his poetry, family demons were blocking agents to be driven off by ‘arrows of thought’.
His years at 13 Hercules Buildings, south of the Thames in ‘Lambeth’s vale’, were his most poetically productive. Blake lived here throughout the 1790s, composing The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, Europe, The Book of Urizen, Songs of Experience and The Book of Los. He created illustrations for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality and Thomas Gray’s poems, and began work on Vala, later titled The Four Zoas. While these Blakean flights of imagination emanated from Hercules Buildings, so did several other visionary medicines: at number 6 was Mr Deering, whose ‘Antiscorbutic Drops’ treated the ‘King’s Evil’, while a few doors away from Blake at number 10 was the ‘Medicinal Warehouse’, where Dr Smith’s Collyrium, ‘a radical cure for every complaint incident to the visual organ’, could be purchased. At number 13, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell promised radically improved vision too: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’
Hercules Buildings was a bustling terrace of three-storey houses, each with a small back garden where, it was rumoured, Blake and his wife, Catherine, sat naked reading Paradise Lost. Throughout his life Blake was temperamentally, socially and professionally an outsider – yet that does not mean he was altogether obscure. Through the Unitarian bookseller Joseph Johnson he met Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft; tea with William Godwin brought conversation with the writer Mary Hays and the painter Joshua Cristall. Leigh Hunt and his brothers were aware of Blake’s work; so, eventually, were Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coleridge’s Cambridge tutor, William Frend, knew Blake as ‘a strange man … he thinks he sees spirits’. Henry Crabb Robinson was an admirer; so were the younger artists John Constable, Samuel Palmer and George Richmond. Blake’s obituary in The Standard pointed to ‘warmest praise’ from established painters – but their praises, however warm, did not offset the penury of his later years, passed:
with his affectionate wife, in a close back room in one of the Strand courts, his bed in one corner, his meagre dinner in another, a rickety table holding his copper-plates in progress, his colours, books, … his large drawings, sketches and MSS; – his ancles frightfully swelled, his chest disordered, old age striding on, his wants increased, but not his miserable means and appliances: even yet was his eye undimmed, the fire of his imagination unquenched, and the preternatural, never-resting activity of his mind unflagging.
In Eternity’s Sunrise, Leo Damrosch captures Blake’s creativity in all its complexity, bringing to life his work as a poet, engraver and painter in a revolutionary age. A real strength of his book is the fine balance it achieves between Blake’s genius and his psychic troubles. I recall a conference twenty-five years ago at which the great scholar David Erdman was lecturing brilliantly on Blake’s poetry; in the audience his wife, Virginia, a distinguished clinical psychologist, leaned across to the person sitting next to her and observed, ‘I’ve never been able to convince David that Blake was completely mad.’