William Blake’s collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and Experience, was self–published in 1794 and The Tyger ‘burning bright, in the forests of the night’, perhaps his most instantly recognisable poem, is in this collection. Blake, also a painter and engraver, illustrated each page, highlighting the poems emotional depth and range.
Who couldn’t look at the first illustration for Spring and not feel the young boy’s joy as seeing the new lambs while cradled in the gentle protective care of his mother. Sadly the beauty and delight of these poems were mostly overlooked, as he was in his lifetime, and he sold less than thirty copies.
Largely viewed as eccentric, even mad, by his contemporaries, Blake’s religious and political philosophies, embodied by his paintings and poetry went on to influence the Pre-Raphaelite movement and later the poetry of W.B.Yeats. Blake also had an enormous influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and has been cited by Bob Dylan, author Aldous Huxley and more recently Philip Pullman in his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, is rooted in Blake’s world.
I first met Blake properly when I was at University. Of course I had been briefly introduced before, but it was only then that I really took the time to know him. And what a delight he was! There is something about Blake’s poetry, his recurrent themes of lost and mistreated children, his sensitivity to injustice of the world, that made me feel that way, as if I was really getting to know him – his horror at the needless suffering of children, his passion for life and justice, always intermingled with kindness and generosity of spirit.
When I learnt more about him as a person: how he often got into brawls, intervened in acts of cruelty he saw involving children and women, his very happy yet poignantly childless marriage and his resentment at the church’s shackling of religion and abhorrence of prisons, I thought: ‘here’s man who I would’ve loved to have met’.
Today many of our heroes have to be looked at through ‘time-goggles’. They may have been pioneering but they were also products of their time, ingrained with many unrecognised prejudices or misconceptions that don’t sit comfortably with us anymore. I think Blake is unique in that he’s probably one of the very few who we can throw those ‘time-goggles’ away for.
Emma Pickard, Marketing and Publicity Coordinator for Tate Enterprises.