The Otherworldly Art of William Blake: An Introduction to the Visionary Poet and Painter

Giv­en his achieve­ments in the realms of both poet­ry and paint­ing, to say noth­ing of his com­pul­sions to reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal inquiry, it’s tempt­ing to call William Blake a “Renais­sance man.” But he lived in the Eng­land of the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry to the near mid-nine­teenth, mak­ing him a Roman­tic Age man — and in fact, accord­ing to the cur­rent his­tor­i­cal view, one of that era’s defin­ing fig­ures. “Today he is rec­og­nized as the most spir­i­tu­al of artists,” say the nar­ra­tor of the video intro­duc­tion above, “and an impor­tant poet in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture.” And whether real­ized on can­vas or in verse, his visions have retained their pow­er over the cen­turies.

That pow­er, how­ev­er, went prac­ti­cal­ly unac­knowl­edged in Blake’s life­time. Most who knew him regard­ed him as some­thing between an eccen­tric and a mad­man, a per­cep­tion his grand­ly mys­ti­cal ideas and vig­or­ous rejec­tion of both insti­tu­tions and con­ven­tions did lit­tle to dis­pel.

Blake did­n’t believe that the world is as we see it. Rather, he sought to access much stranger under­ly­ing truths using his for­mi­da­ble imag­i­na­tion, exer­cised both in his art and in his dreams. Cul­ti­vat­ing this capac­i­ty allows us to “see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heav­en in a Wild Flower / Hold Infin­i­ty in the palm of your hand / And Eter­ni­ty in an hour.”

Those words come from one of Blake’s “Auguries of Inno­cence.” Despite being one of his best-known poems, it mere­ly hints at the depth and breadth of his world­view — indeed, his view of all exis­tence. His entire cor­pus, writ­ten, paint­ed, and print­ed, con­sti­tutes a kind of atlas of this rich­ly imag­ined ter­ri­to­ry to which “The Oth­er­world­ly Art of William Blake” pro­vides an overview. Though very much a prod­uct of the time and place in which he lived, Blake clear­ly drew less inspi­ra­tion from the world around him than from the world inside him. Real­i­ty, for him, was to be cul­ti­vat­ed — and rich­ly — with­in his own being. Still today, the chimeri­cal con­vic­tion of his work dares us to cul­ti­vate the real­i­ty with­in our­selves.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fan­tas­ti­cal “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books”: The Images Are Sub­lime, and in High Res­o­lu­tion

William Blake’s Paint­ings Come to Life in Two Ani­ma­tions

William Blake’s Mas­ter­piece Illus­tra­tions of the Book of Job (1793–1827)

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

William Blake Illus­trates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture, Orig­i­nal Sto­ries from Real Life (1791)

William Blake: The Remark­able Print­ing Process of the Eng­lish Poet, Artist & Vision­ary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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