This article was first published on the blog of Blackwell bookshop for an event with Philip Pullman and Iain Sinclair in the Inspired by Blake Festival in Oxford in January 2015
Among the things I value most in the work of William Blake are his outrage at cruelty and injustice, his energy and his reverence for life.
The outrage came to mind last October when I read that there are people in Britain today who are so poor that they see no option but to steal in order to feed their children. At the same time, the rewards for the powerful have never been greater. We live in a country regressing not just to Victorian levels of inequality but to Hanoverian ones. In Holy Thursday Blake rages:
Is this a holy thing to see/In a rich and fruitful landBabes reduced to misery/Fed with cold and usurous hand?
But Blake was not only a man who railed at iniquity. Like Shakespeare, Beethoven and Walt Whitman, his art speaks boundless energy, endless flow. “Exuberance is beauty,” he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; “energy is eternal delight.”
And although he acknowledges darkness, Blake’s vision is one ultimately one of reverence and tenderness such as we find in Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and other traditions at their finest. I have returned to the following lines countless times since I first encountered them as a teenager, and try to practice their teaching almost every day:
To see the word in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour
In a fine article published in The Guardian, Philip Pullman notes Blake’s aversion to what the “single vision” of Isaac Newton. This was Blake’s term for the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world that he saw as characteristic of the scientific method. And it is here that I differ with Blake (but not with Pullman!). Science may often be the captive of evil but it is the natural brother of art and poetry. Albert Einstein put this well when he wrote that our everyday sensation of separateness from the rest of the universe is a kind of “optical delusion of consciousness.” Our task as scientists and citizens, he wrote, “must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Richard Feynman got to the heart of it when he said that science only adds to the awe and mystery of a flower.
William Wordsworth said that there was something in Blake’s madness which interested him more than the sanity of Byron. Well, Blake was certainly wild. He saw angels in trees. But there is a kind of truth in that, as well as a kind of madness. And Blake was not mad compared to the world in which we live, in which hateful people under the guise of religion commit terrible crimes while powerful nations spend hundreds of times as much upon a single weapon platform as they do on humanitarian and development assistance or combating climate change. Blake is part of a great radical dissenting tradition in England stretching back over many centuries which we need to remember and to celebrate as we organise and cooperate to make a better world for our children.
Caspar Henderson (@casparhenderson) is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. He is writing A New Map of Wonders
Image: Tate Gallery