Rosicrucian Writings Online
William Blake--Painter, Poet and MysticBy Bro. William H. McKegg, F.R.C.
[From The Rosicrucian Digest May 1932]
Like other great mystics who essayed to help man out of the dull rut of tradition and bigotry, Blake was little understood and never achieved the just fame he deserved during his lifetime. But after his transition he was recognized as a genius, and today he stands high among the list of England's Immortals.
He was born in London, in 1757, the second of five children. His father was a hosier, and fairly prosperous. When he was eight years old, Blake beheld beautiful, strange visions. Nature appeared to him not in her usual guise, but in the Royal Splendor of her True Self. He was sternly ridiculed by his elders and others when he related to them what he could see. And once, running in to his mother to tell her he had just seen a vision of the prophet Ezekiel standing under a tree, he received not her approbation for gaining such an honor, but a sound thrashing for being too imaginative.
However, his ardent desire to create finally caused his parents to permit him to take drawing lessons.
Later, he was apprenticed to Basire, an engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. Basire sent young Blake to Westminster Abbey to sketch. There, in Edward the Confessor's Chapel, the Holy of Holies in Westminster, he copied the heads of dead and gone kings and queens. It was here he also drew his first picture of importance, "Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion".
He was greatly attracted to the story of the Holy Grail, to the magician Merlin, and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Between the ages of twelve and twenty he wrote his first poems.
Eventually, branching out as an artist, he was urged to paint in oils. Blake tried this experiment, but discarded it as being inadequate to his style. He stated that oil paintings ''sank," taking away the brilliance and color he aimed at.
"Coloring," Blake declared, "does not depend on where the colors are put, but on where the lights and darks are put, and all depends on form or outline, on where that is put; where that is wrong the coloring never can be right."
His bold assertions and odd views incited the antagonism of various established artists, but they had to admit that Blake's creations possessed a beauty of color and symbolic vision excelling all those of mediocrity. Tatham, the friend of his later days and his biographer, said: "Like his thoughts, his paintings seem to be inspired by fairies, and his colors look as if they were the bloom dropped from the brilliant wings of the spirits of the prism."
At twenty-four, Blake fell in love with a young girl who did not, however, return his affections. Taken ill, he went into the country to regain his health and there stayed with a family named Boutcher. He met the daughter Catherine, whose sympathy and care attracted him to her. A year later they were married and a devoted union of ideal beauty existed between the two until Blake's transition, which occurred four years before the passing of his wife.
Blake asserted to his friends--among whom were some of the most famous men of his time--that he had the power of bringing his imaginations before his mind's eye so clearly that he could not go wrong in designing them. He also said he was often the companion of spirits who taught and advised him. His painting of "The Vision of Jacob's Ladder" will reveal to most mystics to what Blake was referring. He likewise declared that he had the power of calling upon personages of ancient times, to talk with them of their painting methods. His own creations compared, strangely enough, with those of the cinquecento period. He held the works of Raphael and Michael Angelo in deep veneration.
As a Rosicrucian adept, Blake had revealed to him the Divine Wonders of the Universe and the secrets of Nature.
Once, a prospective patron declared his designs were too unreal. Blake replied:
"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportion; and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy, or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so."
"Why,'' he later stated, "is the Bible more entertaining and instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the imagination, which is spiritual sensation, and but mediately to the understanding or reason? Consider what Lord Bacon says: "Sense sends over to imagination before reason have judged, and reason sends over to imagination before the decree can be acted." I am happy to find a great majority of fellow mortals who can elucidate my visions, and particularly they have been elucidated by children who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my picture than I even hoped."
Blake had one horror in life--the fear of wealth, which, he was wont to declare, destroyed creative art. He was not a rich man, nor was he, on the other hand, poor. Those who were closest to him affirmed that he always appeared to have had sufficient on which to live and make himself and his wife happy and contented. They were each known to be very charitable; they never failed in kindness; and always had a pound to spare to anyone greatly in need of it.
Blake lived as many other Rosicrucian mystics before and since have lived--with utter indifference to all worldly wealth. Naturally he was never understood. In fact, many regarded him as mad. A person prompted only by idle curiosity would get a bewildering reply to any question he put to him, which confirmed his suspicion that Blake was crazy. But to a soul eager for knowledge and enlightenment, Blake showed himself to be a well of profound wisdom.
When his youngest brother died, Blake declared that he appeared to him one night and disclosed a method whereby he could invent and put to use what he later called "Illuminated Printing".
"I am not ashamed, afraid, or averse to tell you," he wrote one friend, "what ought to be told; that I am under the direction of messengers from heaven, daily and nightly."
All those who aspire must go, at least once, through a period of despair.
Blake's mystical pictures and poetry met with ridicule from critics and those jealous of his prowess. This rejection of his artistic efforts seemed to be his dark hour. His world appeared to crumble about him.
He left London and placed his talents at the disposal of a rather exacting friend, who had an eye more on financial gain than artistic furtherance. Much against his grain, Blake made miniatures. He deserted "imaginative" art--which is ever the highest--for "imitative" art, which, though possibly more lucrative, carries with it no satisfaction, no worth.
"I say this much to you," he wrote to one of his most intimate friends, "knowing that you will not make bad use of it. But it is a fact too true that, if I had only depended on mortal things, both myself and my wife must have been lost. I shall leave everyone in this country astonished at my patience and forbearance of injuries upon injuries; and I do assure you that, if I could have returned to London a month after my arrival here, I should have done so. But I was commanded by my spiritual friends to bear all and be silent, and to go through all without murmuring."
It would appear from Blake's inference that he was passing through a great test. Rosicrucian students of the higher grades--especially the ninth degree--will understand this "dark night of the soul" through which he was passing and from which he emerged, shining with an inner light that flamed all the more brilliantly after its temporary inactivity. He returned to London and renewed his former life and work.
Blake knew the wonders within man. He essayed to enlighten his fellow men by revealing the powers they could attain from within themselves if they but put to use various simple, natural laws.
"Oh! what wonders are the children of men!" he wrote. "Would to God that they would consider it--that they would consider their spiritual life, regardless of that faint shadow called natural life, and that they would promote each other's spiritual labors, each according to its rank."
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. . . . For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."
Imagination was the word Blake used when alluding to True Spiritual Life.
"I know of no other Christianity, and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination: Imagination, the real and eternal World of which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow, and in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies are no more."
If his mystic paintings appeared odd to the average person, they appealed to all those who sought Light, and were regarded with high esteem by some of the greatest artists. Both Romney and Fuseli were ardent admirers of Blake's paintings, as Coleridge and Wordsworth were admirers of his poetry. He read books in their original languages--which he taught himself. When he was past sixty he read Dante, though before then he knew no Italian.
Just before his transition, while in bed, he executed his most distinguished picture--"The Ancient of Days Striking the First Circle of the Earth". It was suggested to him by the lines in Book VII. of "Paradise Lost", beginning with "He took the golden Compasses. . . ."
Blake spoke calmly of the approach of his transition; and never was he more joyous and happy than during the hour in which it took place. He sang in a manner so strangely beautiful that those who heard it were held spell-bound by its mystic import.
"His bursts of gladness made the room peal again," Tatham relates. "The walls rang and resounded with the beatific symphony. It was a prelude to the hymns of saints. It was an overture to the choir of heaven. It was a chant for the response of angels. . . . Then his spirit departed like the sighing of a gentle breeze."
Another friend wrote of him: "He was more like the ancient pattern of virtue than I ever expected to see in this world; he feared nothing so much as being rich, lest he should lose his spiritual riches. He was at the same time the most sublime in his expressions, with the simplicity and gentleness of a child."
The predominant Truth William Blake expounded throughout the sixty-nine years of his life, may be summed up in some of his own lines:
"Nature has no Outline, but Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural and dissolves; Imagination is Eternity."
*(Any Rosicrucian student desiring to gain a deeper insight into the mystical import of Blake's life and works may do so by reading the following two books: [title missing] edited by A. G. B. Russell, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. And THE POETICAL WORKS OF WILLIAM BLAKE, edited by John Sampson, Oxford University Press.)
Webmaster's Note: "The Poetical Works of William Blake" edited by John Sampson may be downloaded here (external link).
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