Literature, Blake, and the World

In conversation with others, sometimes, when I mention that I am researching within English literature, the question is raised as to the relevance of literature in general, or more specific to my topic, the relevance and importance of William Blake.

To answer the first part – on the relevance of literature – it seems that literature is one of those things that requires communication of its insights from a place of understanding for its significance to be grasped. I don’t want to imply there is some kind of insider secret code involved here, because anyone can study literature, with some willingness and effort. But there is a journey into literature as a discipline; it takes time to learn to read and critique literature. There is a need for the unpacking of literature by the reader as critic. To the casual reader, there is always the surface of a text to skim over. This skimming may bring amusement, entertainment, escapism, dislike, or boredom, but such a mode of reading is likely to miss much of what the text contains. As Andy Mousley writes, in Literature and the Human, reading literature involves an engagement with one’s entire being.1

Literature must be unpacked, or interpreted, by the reader as critic. Communicating an interpretation to those unfamiliar with literature – and also how to approach literary texts – grants access to the deeper meaning of a text. This communication is an art in itself, and may also teach the critic many things. Yet the value of literature as a discipline is not as obvious as something like, say, medicine or science – these latter disciplines have very obvious value, for their products often solve concrete problems in tangible ways. Even if a person has no understanding of medicine themselves, they will easily understand its value – it cures the sick.

But literature is more subtle and subjective, though its implications are no less pervasive and profound. When you recognise how influential literature has been to shape society, culture, history, and our entire scope of human thought, it becomes hard to restrain it as some mere auxiliary to human life. For the individual who studies literature, it promotes many traits for personal development: understanding, perspective, sensibility, empathy, communication ability, and so on. Reading literature activates the mind’s faculties: rouses emotions, raises thoughts and questions, stimulates the imagination, exercises the intelligence, and may stir past memories – it is an experience. Like a story, literature is narrative, but it is also more than that – this is what makes it literature. It could be described as profound narrative; story containing great insight and meaning, story which has human relevance. The fact that literature exists, that it has endured time, crossed many cultural and historical changes and survived, is evidence for its profundity. Literature has wide implications, but understanding these requires some work. Learning to access the enduring power of literature and extrapolate its relevance into various contexts brings forth its gifts for the world. The critic’s role as communicator, as bridge between literature and the world, is essential here.

The second part of the question that others sometimes approach me with – the relevance of William Blake – is a subset of the above. I was searching the Internet this afternoon for some blogs on Blake and the thought occurred to me that there are two ways the question of Blake’s relevance can be approached. The first requires that the world (or rather, individuals in the world) approach Blake for who he is. That means understanding what Blake sought to communicate through his writing and art. It requires entering Blake’s world, which may appear in many ways unusual to our common experience of the world. This is no easy task, and you will likely return changed by it. Blake’s world is visionary; it is paradoxical, imaginative, intense, rich, colourful, emotive, dramatic, daimonic. Not everyone has an interest in such a world; nonetheless, Blake’s literature and art is relevant to our shared world. This becomes apparent when his literature (and art) is unpacked, interpreted, critiqued. Because of the difficulty of this task, there will be only a few willing to embark upon it and persevere until success is gained.

Those not willing to do this, perhaps the majority, would benefit from the second approach, which is brought about by those who understand Blake, then bring Blake to the world in various mediums. There is a blog named Zoamorphosis, edited by Jason Whittaker and Roger Whitson, which explores the evolution of Blake’s work among the arts, media, popular culture, and also scholarship. This, I would suggest, is an excellent blog for providing information on the links between Blake and the world. This is part of a larger project known as Blake 2.0, exploring the dissemination of Blake’s work and Blake research through advances in technology. As not everyone is willing to become a scholar of Blake, there are still many ways to approach Blake through the arts, media, and popular culture.

From my own research, I have come to see how Blake, most of whose works were written over two hundred years ago, has relevance to the world in the twenty-first century. Blake’s work is still being unpacked and interpreted by scholars, while also emanating through art, culture, and media within the wider world. Therefore, both approaches, to and from Blake, are important for growing an understanding of this unique visionary artist and poet. Blake’s (and literature’s) relevance is likely to become better understood through this bi-directional process.

 

Unknown Artist. Fools Cap Map of the World. c. 1590. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

 

Notes:
1 – Mousley, Andy. Literature and the Human: Criticism, Theory, Practice. Routledge, 2013, pp. 45-6.

When a mountain is not a molehill

I’m beginning to see the impossibility of exploring the entire mountain of literature on William Blake in full detail within the time span given for my postgraduate research. Is it a mountain? As far as publications about Blake,  G. E. Bentley, Jr., in his William Blake and His Circle (Toronto 2015) lists about 5000 books written on William Blake and around 13000 essays, since Blake’s time (1757-1827) until 2015. These published works include around 3500 publications in 46 different, non-English languages. That’s no molehill. Although I have no idea how many books have been written on Shakespeare, in comparison, it would be a far loftier mountain, guaranteed, of twice the age and far better received over time. Blake literature is growing, but not above Shakespeare.

Even within Blake studies, there are various valleys of like-minded research, streams that nourish and streams that dry up, smooth hill-tops of veneered perspectives on differing points of view, and perhaps some rugged ridges of debate – though I haven’t come across much pointed disagreement in what seems to be a cordial scholarly community. Even where differences exist, supported by Blake’s “Opposition is true Friendship” (MHH20)  and “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH3),1 the landscape of Blakean literature becomes invigorating through contrast.

Of course, it’s realistic to draw limits on any project. My focus is a specific topic in relation to Blake, not the entire literature on him.

* * *

If I were a mole seeking to burrow into an ideal spot, first I would survey the terrain to orientate myself and find the best place to start digging. After much digging I would have contributed my own small molehill to that terrain. One might imagine as a mole in the field of their discoveries that they are instead a lofty mountain eagle. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Or as Alexander Pope puts it, in An Essay on Criticism (1709):

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

So the solution to not exaggerating molehills as mountains is in more learning. And I suppose the eagle to be sober. Being realistic is an important aspect of scholarship, and it goes both ways – reconciling the errors of both being over-confident and under-confident in one’s learning. Balance is the most effective path. I mention moles and eagles because Blake did, in Thel’s motto:

Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?
– The Book of Thel2

Balance necessitates practical sense, which is an antidote to any stress. A molehill is not a mountain, and that’s a good thing. As for the last two lines of Thel’s motto, the literal answer seems no, you can’t do those things.  But then it gets me thinking analogically

The landscape of literature on Blake is diverse and interesting. It shows there are many ways to understand what Blake wrote. Blake was big on “Sublime Allegory”,3 after all.

The Book of Thel
The front cover of William Blake’s The Book of Thel (1789)

Notes:
1 – MHH – William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Marriage_of_Heaven_and_Hell.
2 – From a letter written to Thomas Butts, 6 July 1803. Keynes, Geoffrey, The Letters of William Blake, Macmillan 1956, p. 87, archive.org/stream/lettersofwilliam002199mbp/lettersofwilliam002199mbp_djvu.txt.
3 – The Book of Thel (transcript), from Wikisource: en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Thel_%28transcript%29.

Which take on Blake?

It’s amazing to explore the range of literature on Blake, all forming part of a larger conversation around his work. There are so many different facets to Blake that have been written about: his poetry, art, political views, theology and mysticism, historical context, views on gender, symbolism, the British mythos, humanism, science, materialism, modernism, his followers, his influence in the Nineteenth Century, comparisons of Blake with Goethe, with Yeats, with other Romanticists and writers, his supposed madness, use of language, way of writing, influence on twentieth-century popular culture, construction of visionary myth – on and on the list goes. Some of these are directed towards Blake or his work, while others take Blake’s perspective and mix it with another, and others again take Blake into another field altogether. Whatever is done, it seems quite clear there is a density to Blake’s visionary oeuvre which permits a multivalent unfolding into surrounding literature.

An exploration of this literature is what I’ve been doing recently, in preparation for a literature review. Having familiarity with what has been done gives greater ability in constructing something new to add to the established body of literature. In a literature review, the new work is placed in relationship with what has previously been explored, and this relationship is critically examined. This serves to orientate one’s contribution within a greater dialogue of the topic at hand—in my case, William Blake.

Yet as has been mentioned, Blake’s work has many facets and it connects many disciplines. Such is to be expected of any genius in the creation of literature. This diversity contributes both interest and validity to Blake, although I have found one persistent question exists for me in this journey of research: What did Blake want from his work? The answer is already given, quite explicitly, by Blake himself:

“The Nature of my Work is Visionary or Imaginative; it is an Endeavour to Restore what the Ancients call’d the Golden Age.”
– William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment’1

To restore a Golden Age. This statement invites yet more questions: What exactly is this Golden Age? Why did Blake endeavour for it? And how did he intend to restore it? Such questions require extensive study. As I continue my journey (and blog it) further aspects of my research on Blake will be revealed along these and other lines.

In whatever way Blake’s statement of purpose measures up to what I am creating in relation to Blake, I would like to think I am somehow fulfilling both the need for scholarship in my work and also a sense of respect towards Blake’s intentions. I would not claim to follow Blake in any kind of discipleship, nor to aid in his purposes, but I do seek to understand him as clearly as possible, whether or not I agree with the result of this. From there, I can at least say I have thoroughly and accurately explored the topic I am researching, and thereby contribute something worthwhile to Blakean studies. This is my aim as I now see it.

 

Notes:
1 – From Gilchrist, Alexander, The Life of William Blake, vol. 2, edited by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Macmillan and Co. 1880, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Life_of_William_Blake_%281880%29,_Volume_2/Prose_writings/A_Vision_of_the_Last_Judgment.