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.
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.