Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Vision of the Last Judgement--Wm Blake (1810) Part I

I went through a period a few years back when I was especially enamored of the authors and painters and musicians of the Romantic period. I was not a kid at the time either--I had already attained an older age than many of the era's poets ever reached. If my enthusiasm for the period has abated at all this has more to do with my increasing sense of personal estrangement from the vital animating spirits of the Romantic worldview than from my assessment of their worth. One of the great satisfactions of maturity, it is sometimes posited, is coming to the understanding that the opinions, perceptions, and experiences of one's youth, especially if one was susceptible to passionate feelings, were either false or trivial, and developing the capacity to come into the deeper, earned pleasures and understandings that only competent, considered, serious adulthood can know. This however is the fussy prejudice of a certain brand of low-energy intellectual who was never vigorous. The older person, assuming he is semi-sentient, will know more, it is true, and will usually be more sensible, but the decline in physical and mental energy that seems to afflict almost everyone, even many people who were once Great in their young days, denudes this knowledge and experience of any power when put into action.

William Blake appears to have been one of the exceptions to this general rule. He never lost the energies and mental processes of his youthful intelligence and talent. Nearly everyone who reads him is immediately struck by the sense that he must be among the handful of the most remarkable writers ever to work in English. There seems to be little hesitation, when compared to how scrupulously other writers are assessed, in proclaiming him a genius. His intelligence is equally palpable and difficult to categorize for general instruction. Whatever of makes of what he saw, he was an incredible imaginative writer and seer. He put into words the non-material, non-corporeal nature of authentic religious spirit as well, I think, if not better than any English writer, including the translator(s) of the Bible. He illustrates and comprehends ideas as wholes rather than parts, and does so with great economy of language, as only true poets can.
This is Blake's own illustration of the Last Judgement, in case anyone didn't know. This piece of writing is only 19 pages long but it gives one loads of material to chew over. Right in the second paragraph he distinguishes between Fable, Allegory and Vision, and he does not do so in the conversational style of the lecture hall ("Fable and Allegory are a totally distinct & inferior kind of Poetry. Vision or Imagination is a Representation of what Eternally Exists...The Hebrew Bible and the Gospel of Jesus are not Allegory, but Eternal Vision or Imagination of All that Exists."). One feels that the author must have experienced life very intensely. He goes on in the same brief passage: "Plato has made Socrates say that Poets & Prophets do not know or Understand what they write or Utter; this is a most Pernicious Falshood. If they do not, pray is an inferior kind to be call'd Knowing? Plato confutes himself." This would have been a fun guy to have in seminar at my old college, not so much for his argument, which is hardly incontrovertible, but for the power and unshakeable confidence of the speaker, which is scarcely to be contended with.

Moving on, speaking still of the Greek notions..."Reality was Forgot, & the Vanities of Time & Space only Remember'd & call'd Reality...the Greek Fables originated in Spiritual Mystery & Real Visions, which are lost & clouded in Fable & Allegory, while the Hebrew Bible & the Greek Gospel are Genuine...The Nature of my an Endeavor to Restore what the Ancients call'd the Golden Age." I wrote a note--this was back in December, I am hopelessly behind on my reports--that 'the Platonic ideal of the forms was strong in him however'. I can't figure out what this refers to now though. I also questioned whether Hell were not fun for demons, or at least not torturous, but I can't see why I was moved to write this either.

The worldly purpose of this piece of writing was as a description of a picture(s?) in a catalogue of Blake's drawings. One favorite rather nonchalant sentence: "Those figures that descend into the Flames before Caiaphas & Pilate are Judas & those of his Class." This is a 53 year-old man of historical talent and intelligence, and he means it.

I shouldn't stop now, but it has been a few days and I want to post. I hope I will have some better insights when I am not quite so tired.

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