The Life and Work of William Blake
- ISBN: 9781789142877
- Published By: Reaktion Books
- Published: April 2021
With the publication of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, Jason Whittaker has gifted us with a rich introductory treatment of the English artist William Blake’s life and work in a gorgeous volume that includes 108 high-quality illustrations, 77 of which are in color. Blake (1757-1827) produced an impressive body of work that engaged an extraordinary range of worldviews, all reflected through the prism of his unique mythopoetic imagination. Poet, painter, engraver, printer, and bookseller, in his day he was a maverick in the publishing world, liberating himself from the constraints of print commerce by completely controlling the production of his works. Blake composed his poems and designs, engraved or etched them onto copper plates, printed them on his press, watercolored each page, bound them into books, and sold them through his own patronage network. Aside from these “illuminated books,” he produced a vast collection of paintings and large color prints, most with biblical and/or religious themes, as well as commercial engravings and paintings illustrating the works of others. (Digital copies of most of Blake’s works can be accessed through the William Blake Archive.)
Whittaker deals here with Blake in all dimensions of his art, explaining his revolutionary ideas and artistic methods clearly and succinctly. His aim is “to provide a guide to Blake’s art and poetry, to untangle some of the meanings of his more complex works by explaining them in reference to his life and the events and movements of his day” (12), and to serve as “a guide for readers who wish to know more about what motivated and inspired this most original of artists” (25).
Drawing on a wide range of scholarship on Blake, Whittaker proceeds chronologically, contextualizing Blake’s works in his own life experience and in many of the political, social, philosophical, scientific, and economic movements and events of the time. But as the title of the book indicates, he concentrates on the prevalent religious traditions and attitudes of the late 18th and 19th centuries, which play major roles in Blake’s paintings and illuminated books. In all of these areas, he balances Blake’s use of the ideas and artistic methods of the time with his adaptations and revolutionary departures from them—in poetic style, in philosophical and religious principles, in social and political attitudes, in literary genres, and in his methods of producing his works. Whittaker explains the progression of Blake’s art against the background of commercial printmaking, conventional pastoral poetry, the standards and philosophical underpinnings of moral education, the tradition of emblem books, the American and French Revolutions, the impact and institutionalization of Swedenborgianism in Britain, and a whole host of his literary and artistic forebears.
In the last chapter, Whittaker considers Blake’s influence on later artists, poets, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and philosophers to the present day. He touches on such English figures as Alexander Gilchrist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and composers Henry Walford Davies and Charles Hubert Parry, who in 1916 set Blake’s words in his preface to Milton a Poem to the music that became known as the “Jerusalem” hymn (one of England’s national anthems since World War I). In America, he traces Blake’s legacy through Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Harris (author of the Hannibal Lecter novels), Bob Dylan, and Jim Morrison, among others.
The title of the book expresses not only a focus on the religious dimension of these works, but on the author’s expression of the dazzling and captivating nature of Blake’s art. Hyperbole abounds throughout the volume: Whittaker is continually “astonished” by these works, and his enthusiasm in describing the aesthetic effects of Blake’s art is relentless. But it delightfully communicates his personal experience in a way that graciously invites new readers and viewers to see these works through his eyes.
Whittaker does a remarkable job of presenting Blake’s religious mythology over time, from his earliest to his latest works, both in his poetic and visual art. One of the things I appreciated most about this study was his ability to render Blake’s wild, fantastic, and unruly world of images and ideas accessible to new readers without simplifying or homogenizing those themes. He acknowledges Blake’s deliberate complexity and purposeful obscurity of meaning—including his reordering of pages in different versions of his illuminated books and altering the images in different versions of his prints and paintings. At the same time, he helps us gain access to those meanings in a variety of ways, including locating them in the events and attitudes of Blake’s time, and viewing them with reference to Blake’s artistic, religious, and philosophical forebears, and in terms of the personal experiences of Blake’s life.
Given the book’s title, readers might expect Whittaker to weigh in on the ongoing debates in scholarship about Blake’s own religious persuasion. However, he chooses not to venture into that sticky wicket, which is probably appropriate for an introductory work like this. He only talks about it in the most general terms, referring to Blake as “pursuing an idiosyncratic vision of Christianity” (315), attacking any form of practice that sees “religion as retributive justice” (318), and favoring any faith centered in “the forgiveness of sins” (319). Further, Whittaker describes him as “firmly committed to some kind of communitarian view of society” (317), opposed to “a materialistic view of the universe” (317) and “a profoundly Christian theist, one who believes that God is entirely internal, created by us as evidence of the divinity of our imagination” (321; emphasis in original). So while these descriptions might be more fitting here, I still would have liked him to weigh in a bit more on that conversation, given the careful way he has contextualized Blake’s life and art.
While this book is designed as an introduction for readers not familiar with Blake, it will also spark a renewed appreciation in veteran readers for Blake’s ingenuity and tenacity amidst the extraordinary political, social, economic, and artistic upheavals of his time. Whittaker covers a lot of ground well in few pages, an approach that reveals the essentials of Blake’s life and art by situating them thoroughly in the influences of the time. Furthermore, this book is elegantly produced with a large typeface, substantial pages, and generous margins for readers’ annotations. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book. I highly recommend it for anyone finding themselves drawn into the current of Blake’s wake.
Jennifer G. Jesse is professor of philosophy and religion at Truman State University.Jennifer JesseDate Of Review:March 30, 2022