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The Painted Poems of William Blake, and an Era of Changing Colours

With the publication of lyrical ballads, the Romantic movement started in England. It was a period of transition and experiment. Through the cold classical edifice of the eighteenth century, peeped the warm light of Romanticism. A rebellion against the Augustan dominance. New influences started working on English sensibility, temper, and literature.

William Blake, our poet, painter, and printmaker, slowly came and shifted the mood. He spanned the transition to Romanticism; lived on mystery, rejected science, doubted God, worshipped Christ, transformed the Bible, emulated the Prophets, and called for a utopia of earthbound saints.

Blake was one of Britain’s most innovative and important creatives. A pre-Romantic visionary whose ideas were a primary influence upon the emergent movement that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. He put forward the fact that rational reasoning is flawed and a balance between intellect and imagination, with the bias leaning toward imagination, is the key to becoming a fulfilled human being — and this was at the core of later Romantic ideology.

If there is one worldly diktat I abide by with unquestioning faith, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) is that. It’s also a book you can turn to for light reading and entertainment — a five-year-old can appreciate the beauty and majesty of the words as well as the illustrations. Blake invented a printing technique known as relief etching, and used it to print most of his poetry. He called the technique illuminated printing, and the poetry illuminated books.

[Frontispiece and The Tyger, by William Blake]

What fascinates me the most is he pointed out that the scientific facts of a generation are generally disproved by the following generation. For example, during one period everyone knows the world is flat because they can see that it is. The people of the next era work out that it is actually a ball that the sun and the moon and the stars move around, the stars being set in a series of crystal spheres. Then someone works out that it’s not the earth, but the sun that’s actually the centre of the universe… and so on. Then we turn from the macrocosm to the microcosm and we eventually discover the atom, which is thought to be the smallest possible particle of material, until Einstein and Oppenheimer work out that it can be split. Now we know that every particle appears to be made up of smaller particles until we reach the foam of quantum fluctuations.

So now, imagine going back in time and explaining quantum physics to a medieval person who believes the world is flat — they would probably try to burn you at the stake — but go back to any time in human history and talk about dreams, love and emotions, and they would know exactly what you were talking about. Blake thought that it is these components of the human make-up that define us, set us aside, and give us clues as to our place and purpose in the universe.

[The Sick Rose and The Voice of the Ancient Bard, by William Blake]

Songs Of Innocence was originally published in 1789, with Songs Of Experience following in 1793. These two books were then brought together in a single edition as intended in 1794, and expressed many of Blake’s important themes and concepts. It is a beautiful little book that is meant to be read and re-read, and the meanings considered. In this respect, it is a Modern work. We are expected to consider each poem in conjunction with its imagery and in relation to the other poems in the twinned volumes. Each poem from Innocence is ‘answered’ and counterpointed by a poem from Experience, and somewhere between the two lies a truth. Most of the poems are written in simple language that has a similar feel to nursery rhymes, yet the meanings are complex and changeable, depending on the reader’s experiences and at what point they are at in their personal journey of life.

Central to Blake’s philosophy was the idea of seeking a balance between imagination and intellect, somewhere between innocence and experience. Between wide-eyed wonder and jaded cynicism. Blake thought that the persistent truths were emotional, but also recognized that this should be balanced by at least some rationalism…  and I feel that still makes perfect sense. As the sky changes colour outside your closed window, come, be a part of this transition. Of a journey that lets you amalgamate reason and emotion together. A person who breaks the order, changes the narrative, and questions the unquestionable system, deserves to be read and celebrated.

by Aishwarya Roy (Featured in Poems India’s Newsletter Issue 1)

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