Many Formidable Works

William Blake, ‘‘Songs of Innocence’: Title-Page’ 1789, reprinted 1831 or later
William Blake
‘Songs of Innocence’: Title-Page 1789, reprinted 1831 or later

‘Every ornament of perfection, every labour of love’

This section brings together Blake’s greatest achievements as an artist-poet: the illuminated books that combine poetry and illustration in a single coherent vision. The word and the book were the main focus of all Blake’s endeavours. He lavished more care on the one hundred plates of Jerusalem that dominate this room than on any other single work. On plate three of that book, he offers a justification for its being written:

Even from the depths of Hell his
voice I hear,
Within the unfathomed caverns
of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types
shall be

These words underline Blake’s vital principle - that his prophetic vision could only be expressed through the union of words and images, and that only in the fusion of these two media would his vision remain intact and be preserved for posterity.

This final gallery of Blake’s printed texts and images provides a testimony to the endurance and scope of his visionary art. It brings together Blake’s earliest illustrated books - Songs of Innocence and Experience - with his later epic poems and songs, such as Vala and Jerusalem, in which he weaves anti-authoritarian ideals into his own inner vision of a new creation myth.

These works touch on many of the issues that were dearest to Blake’s heart - the battle of the sexes, psychological and political conflict, the liberty of the individual and the creative potential of disobedience. They also exemplify his ability to mix universal themes with allusions that were highly specific, even at times quite parochial. Thus in Jerusalem Blake interweaves musings on the triumph of spirituality over materialism with complaints against John Scholfield, the soldier who accused him of sedition, and references to London villages such as Islington, Camberwell and Primrose Hill. Above all, they reflect the very personal nature of Blake’s vision. The Jerusalem that he envisions is not some other-worldly fantasy but a tangible state that could be achieved in the modern world, as imagined in the final chapter:

And now the time returns again:
Our souls exult & London’s towers
Receive the Lamb of God to dwell
In England’s green & pleasant bowers