Αρχική > φιλοσοφία, λογοτεχνία > The 10 best works by William Blake / Philip Pullman: William Blake and me / The Sedgwick brothers’ top 10 facts about William Blake

The 10 best works by William Blake / Philip Pullman: William Blake and me / The Sedgwick brothers’ top 10 facts about William Blake



On the eve of a major exhibition on the printmaker, painter and poet, Fiona Maddocks chooses her 10 favourite works


William Blake: Apprentice & Master is at the Ashmolean, Oxford, 4 December to 1 March 2015

Fiona Maddocks

1 | The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre, c1805

The Angels hovering over the Body of Jesus in the Sepulchre.


This watercolour with pen and ink is one of around 80 biblical topics commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts, a civil servant. It depicts the moment Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus after the crucifixion and found two angels hovering where the body had lain. Blake’s imagery comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus, when the Israelites make a “mercy seat” flanked by golden angels. The colours are so delicate that the picture is almost monochrome. Aged eight, Blake told his mother he had seen a tree full of angels “bespangling every bough like stars”. The vision occurred on Peckham Rye, one of south-east London’s more ethereal green spaces.


2 | The Ancient of Days, 1794

The Ancient Days.

Blake loved this image, the frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, and made several copies. The old man is Urizen, in Blake’s mythology the embodiment of reason and law and a repressive, satanic force trying to bring uniformity to mankind. (InAmerica a Prophecy, Urizen is the evil god who rules during the Enlightenment.) Here he is seen kneeling in a flaming discus surrounded by dark cloud, hand held over a compass, apparently measuring the black void. A copy was commissioned from Blake during the final days of his life. He worked on it, tinting the colours, as he was propped up on his sickbed.


3 | Adam Naming the Beasts, 1810

Adam Naming the Beasts.

Photograph: (c) Glasgow Museums

A youthful Adam, who closely resembles portraits of the curly-haired young Blake, names the beasts after the fall. The serpent is entwined, in surprisingly friendly fashion, around Adam’s left arm. He stares out, as if deep in thought. The animals, behind him, graze in a pastoral landscape, as if still unscathed by man’s transgression in the garden of Eden. Above Adam’s head, an acorn indicates winter, but in Blake’s mythology the oak is also the druidical tree on which Christ was crucified. The fall of man, the serpent, Adam and Eve are central to Blake’s vision. This tempera-on-wood painting is in Pollok House, Glasgow.


4 | Newton, 1795-c1805


Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

“Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death,” the visionary Blake wrote. He condemned the scientific trio of Isaac Newton, John Locke and Francis Bacon as sterile and materialistic. Here Newton – the idea rather than a portrait – sits on a rock covered in algae, making calculations with a compass, like Urizen in Ancient of Days. He might be at the bottom of the sea, or perhaps in a black hole. Now in the Tate, the picture is one of a dozen of Blake’s “large colour prints”. Eduardo Paolozzi’s vast 1995 bronze sculpture, inspired by Blake, stands in front of the British Library, visible from Euston Road.


5 | Satan, c1789


Photograph: themorgan.org

Satan, who looks like a man tortured in hell, with gagging mouth and rolling eyes, is an undated engraving after Henry Fuseli. The flames of hell, depicted by fine wavy lines, show Blake experimenting with the oval-pointed echoppe needle, a French engraving method of the 18th century. Satan’s flesh is made with “flicks” – tiny incisions enmeshed in the crosshatching in a dot-and-lozenge pattern. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver aged 14. He is regarded a master of the medium, but in 2005 an art historian, Mei-Ying Sung, claimed Blake’s plates show evidence of endless toil, bungles and repeated error.


6 | Blake’s Cottage, c1804-10

Blake's cottage.

Photograph: Pallant House Gallery, Chicester

An angel floats above Blake in the garden of his thatched cottage in Felpham, Sussex, his home from 1800 to 1803: “Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there/ The ladder of Angels descends through the air,” he wrote. Only two of the nine properties in which he lived have survived. The Blake Society is fundraising to buy this house, where he is reputed to have sat naked in the garden readingParadise Lost to his wife. Among campaigners is the novelist Philip Pullman, who names Blake as a key influence on His Dark Materials. £520,000 has to be found by 28 November; see blakesociety.org/blakecottage for ways to help.


7 | The Ghost of a Flea, c1819-20

The Ghost of a Flea.

Photograph: Graves Art Gallery

Obsessed with the supernatural, Blake claimed to have seen visions daily since his boyhood. He and his astrologer friend John Varley used to try to summon spirits. This monstrous creature appeared to Blake in a seance, stating that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”. The scaly, vampire-man creature is salivating over a cup for blood-drinking. The curtains between which he stands add drama. Painted in Blake’s own special tempera method mixed with gold leaf on wood, it measures only 214 x 162mm. The art world of Blake’s day assumed he was mad.


8 | Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1789

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Photograph: The Folio Society

Songs of Innocence and Experience is a double set of illustrated poems showing “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, the childlike and pure versus the angry and disillusioned. The most famous “song of innocence” is The Lamb (“Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee… ?”), its counterpart The Tyger (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”). Blake’s implied question is how could one God have created both creatures, the one benign, the other ferocious? The Lamb was set to music by Vaughan Williams (who claimed to hate the poem), John Tavener and Allen Ginsberg. The Tyger has inspired songs byJoni Mitchell and Tangerine Dream.


9 | The Dance of Albion, c1796

The Dance of Albion.

Photograph: British Museum

A naked youth, part Christ figure, part Vitruvian man, stands on a rock, casting aside worldly shackles to greet the radiant dawn. Also known as Albion Rose orGlad Day, and existing as drawing, engraving, colour printed etching and watercolour, this utopian image dates back to 1780: the American Revolution was in mid-flow. Blake had been caught up in a street mob in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. Albion is the ancient name for Britain and is central to Blake’s own mythology, via his Four Zoas (characters called Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah, Urthona), created by the fall of Albion, obscure to all but the most hardened Blake fans.


10 | Jerusalem, c1804


Photograph: Yale Center for British Art/BAL

The poem that opens “And did those feet in ancient time” appeared in the prefaceto Blake’s epic poem Milton. A radical Christian, Blake may be attacking orthodoxy or industry with the phrase “dark Satanic Mills”, thought in part to refer to the Albion flour mills in Lambeth, which burned down spectacularly in 1791. Of the countless references in popular culture, the film Chariots of Fire wins for having borrowed as its title the poem’s most uplifting phrase. Jerusalem is also Blake’s last prophetic book. On its frontispiece, a figure carrying a mysterious orb invites us through a door, as if into the poem, or towards death itself.


Philip Pullman: William Blake and me

As an exhibition of Blake’s paintings opens in Oxford, Philip Pullman reflects on how his poetry has influenced and intoxicated him for more than 50 years

    William Blake The House of Death, The Lazar House

A detail from The House of Death, The Lazar House, by William Blake (1795). Photograph: the Fitzwilliam Museum, University/Amy Jugg

Philip Pullman, Friday 28 November 2014

Sometimes we find a poet, or a painter, or a musician who functions like a key that unlocks a part of ourselves we never knew was there. The experience is not like learning to appreciate something that we once found difficult or rebarbative, as we might conscientiously try to appreciate the worth ofThe Faerie Queene and decide that yes, on balance, it is full of interesting and admirable things. It’s a more visceral, physical sensation than that, and it comes most powerfully when we’re young. Something awakes that was asleep, doors open that were closed, lights come on in all the windows of a palace inside us, the existence of which we never suspected.

So it was with me in the early 1960s, at the age of 16, with William Blake. I came to Blake through Allen Ginsberg, whose Howl I read half aghast, half intoxicated. I knew who Blake was; I even had an early poem of his by heart (“How Sweet I Roam’d from Field to Field”); I must have come across “The Tyger” in some school anthology. But if Blake could inspire the sort of hellish rapture celebrated and howled about by Ginsberg, then he was the sort of poet I needed to read. Hellish rapture was exactly what I most wanted.

Accordingly, I searched for Blake in the nearest bookshop, which was WH Smith in Barmouth, in what used to be called Merionethshire. There was no Blake there. The local library didn’t help, either. It wasn’t until I went to London on a rare holiday visit that I found a Selected Blake in a small American paperback, edited by Ruthven Todd and published by Dell in their Laurel poetry series. If I’d bought it in the USA it would have cost 35c; I can’t remember what I paid for it in Foyles, but it must have been well under a pound. It’s on the table next to me now, battered, the cover coming apart, the cheap paper flimsy and yellowing. It’s the most precious book I have. A couple of years later I acquired, as a school prize, Geoffrey Keynes’s Nonesuch Press Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake, a handsome hardback now almost as battered, almost as yellowed, almost as precious. But I could put the Dell Blake in my pocket, and for years I did.


Urizen measuring out the material world (c1794) from The Ancient of Days by William Blake. Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Thanks to those books, and thanks to my encounter with Ginsberg, and thanks further back to the enlightened local education authority that sent a library van around to the secondary schools in Merionethshire so that I could choose from their shelves the anthology (Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960: still in print, still irreplaceable) that contained Howl – thanks to those things, I discovered what I believed in. My mind and my body reacted to certain lines from the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from “Auguries of Innocence”, from Europe, from America with the joyful immediacy of a flame leaping to meet a gas jet. What these things meant I didn’t quite know then, and I’m not sure I fully know now. There was no sober period of reflection, consideration, comparison, analysis: I didn’t have to work anything out. I knew they were true in the way I knew that I was alive. I had stumbled into a country in which I was not a stranger, whose language I spoke by instinct, whose habits and customs fitted me like my own skin.

That was 50 years ago. My opinions about many things have come and gone, changed and changed about, since then; I have believed in God, and then disbelieved; I have thought that certain writers and poets were incomparably great, and gradually found them less and less interesting, and finally commonplace; and the reverse has happened, too – I have found wonderful things, unexpected depths of treasure, in books and poems I had no patience to read properly before.

But those first impulses of certainty have never forsaken me, though I may have been untrue to them from time to time. Indeed, they have been joined by others, and I expect to go on reading Blake, and learning more, for as long as I live.

One such impulse of certainty concerns the nature of the world. Is it twofold, consisting of matter and spirit, or is it all one thing? Is dualism wrong, and if so, how do we account for consciousness? In the opening passage to Europe: A Prophecy, Blake recounts how he says to a fairy “Tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?” In response the fairy promises to “shew you all alive / The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” This is close to the philosophical position known as panpsychism, or the belief that everything is conscious, which has been argued back and forth for thousands of years. Unless we deny that consciousness exists at all, it seems that we have to believe either in a thing called “spirit” that does the consciousness, or that consciousness somehow emerges when matter reaches the sort of complexity we find in the human brain. Another possibility, which is what Blake’s fairy is describing here, is that matter is conscious itself.

But why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t consciousness be a normal property of matter, like mass? Let every particle of dust breathe forth its joy. I don’t argue this, I perceive it.

Things that are living, whose bodies however small pulse with that same energy, are capable of even more joy than the particle of dust:

How do you know but ev’ry Birdthat cuts the airy way,

Is an immense world of delight,clos’d by your senses five?

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

That perception carries a moral charge, which is most clearly expressed in “Auguries of Innocence”, a poem not published during Blake’s lifetime. I take it to be one of the greatest political poems in the language, for the way it insists on the right to life and freedom without qualification, uniting large things and small, and shows the moral connections between them:

A Robin Red breast in a Cage

Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

A dog starv’d at his Master’s Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State.

Each outcry of the hunted Hare

A fibre from the Brain does tear.

The wanton Boy that kills the Fly

Shall feel the Spider’s enmity.

Each couplet is a hammer-blow in the cause of a justice that includes all creatures, and tells the truth about power: “Nought can deform the Human Race / Like to the Armour’s iron brace.”

And who can forget the last Labour government’s infatuation with gambling and super-casinos, embodied in a photograph of a secretary of state beaming broadly beside a roulette wheel? “The Whore & Gambler, by the State / Licenc’d, build that Nation’s Fate.”

Again, this is not a matter of arguing so much as of perceiving. It’s a matter of vision.

And when it comes to vision, we need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true: “Without Contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent. Blake was hard on single vision:

Now I a fourfold vision see

And a fourfold vision is given to me;

Tis fourfold in my supreme delight

And threefold in soft Beulahs night

And twofold Always. May God uskeep

From Single vision and Newtonssleep!

(“Letter to Thomas Butts”)

Fourfold vision is a state of ecstatic or mystical bliss. Threefold vision arises naturally from Beulah, which, in Blake’s mythology, is the place of poetic inspiration and dreams, “where Contrarieties are equally True” (Blake, Milton). Twofold vision is seeing not only with the eye, but through it, seeing contexts, associations, emotional meanings, connections. Single vision is the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world characteristic, apparently, of the left hemisphere of the brain when the contextualising, empathetic, imaginative, emotionally involved right brain is disengaged or ignored. (I owe this observation to Roderick Tweedy’s remarkable The God of the Left Hemisphere(2012), and through that to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2009), a profound examination of the differences between the left hemisphere of the brain and the right.)

Blake Sepulchre

Image credit: William Blake Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels (1805). Courtesy of V&A Images

I believe this, too. Single vision is deadly. Those who exalt reason over every other faculty, who condemn those who don’t respond to life with logic but allow themselves to be swayed by emotion, or who maintain that other ways of seeing (the imaginative, the poetic, etc) are fine in their place but the scientific is the only true one, find this position ridiculous. But no symphony, no painting, no poem, no art at all was ever reasoned into existence, and I knew from my youth that art of some kind was going to be the preoccupation of my life. Single vision would not do. “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create” (Blake, “Jerusalem”).

If I didn’t know that from experience when I was young, I know it now. We find the truth of it most forcibly when twofold or threefold vision fails, and we fall into the state described by that great Blakeian WB Yeats as “the will trying to do the work of the imagination”. It’s a condition, I dare say, in which most writers and artists have found themselves marooned from time to time. To get lost in that bleak state when inspiration fails is to find yourself only a step away from an even darker labyrinth, which goes by the entirely inadequate name of depression. A savage deadly heaviness, a desolation of the spirits, an evil gnawing at the very roots of our life: if we’re unlucky enough to feel that, we will know from experience that the opposite of that abominable condition is not happiness, but energy. “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). In its absence, goodness, intellect, beauty – and reason, too – are listless, useless phantoms pining for the blood of life. When I had the misfortune to fall under the oppression of melancholia (another inadequate word), one of the things to which I owed my escape was an edition of the letters of Bernard Shaw, where I found energy abounding. I have loved him ever since.

With twofold vision it’s possible to see how contrary things could be believed. With threefold vision, with the inspiration that comes from the unconscious, from Beulah, it’s possible to believe them. I have found over many years that my way of writing a story, from what used to be called the position of the omniscient narrator, allows me a freedom that writing in the first person doesn’t permit. It means the telling voice can inhabit a multitude of different imaginative states. The voice that tells my stories is not that of a person like myself, but that of a being who is credulous and sceptical simultaneously, is both male and female, sentimental and cynical, old and young, hopeful and fearful. It knows what has happened and what will happen, and it remains in pure ignorance of both. With all the passion in its heart it believes contrary things: it is equally overawed by science and by magic. To this being, logic and reason are pretty toys to play with, and invaluable tools to improve the construction of the castles and grottoes it creates in the air. It scoffs at ghosts, and fears them dreadfully, and loves to call them up at midnight, and then laughs at them. It knows that everything it does is folly, and loves it all the same.

And thanks to the genius of William Blake, it knows that “All deities reside in the human breast”, and that “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). And it thinks that those things are worth knowing.

William Blake: Apprentice & Master, takes place at the Ashmolean, Oxford from 4 December to 1 March 2015.


The Sedgwick brothers’ top 10 facts about William Blake

Our latest teen book club read, graphic novel Dark Satanic Mills, was inspired by poet, painter and engraver William Blake. Find out more about the radical writer here

Julian and Marcus Sedgwick, Tuesday 10 December 2013


Never heard of William Blake? Heard of him and wondered what all the fuss is about? After all, why should we take notice of this obscure and long dead English poet, painter and engraver, who was at best ignored, and at worst derided in his own lifetime? Here are a few reasons why Blake has been an inspiration for many other artists, writers and composers, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Benjamin Britten, from Bob Dylan to Aldous Huxley, from Jim Morrison to David Almond…

Throughout his life, Blake championed the imagination, and its power. Though he was frequently dismissed as mad, he remained determined that the ability to think for yourself was what made you free. He lived in world very much like ours; a society that saw itself as modern, freeing itself of old superstitions, but one that was also a time of political unrest, revolution and war.

Blake’s views were frequently unorthodox, running against popular opinion, something that got him in trouble once or twice. Perhaps now, even more than in Blake’s time, we could do with some free-thinking dissenters. People who speak out. No one now thinks twice about how it is that women have the right to vote; but it was thanks to the suffragettes who were also dismissed as mad in their time. We rightly see slavery as terrible monster of the past, but it was down to the actions of a few forward-thinking people that began to change people’s minds. And this is Blake’s ultimate message: ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s…’ Rather than sleep-walking our way towards meek acceptance of the things that are wrong with the world, Blake calls out from the grave to urge us to question and think for ourselves.

1. The Tyger

William Blake, The Tyger

Mention William Blake, and The Tyger is probably what most people think of first. ‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night…’ So begins this short but deceptively simple poem that has a variety of interpretations. Much of what makes Blake great can be found here: his concept of ‘contraries’, his championing of the creative force of the imagination, his powerful vocabulary, and fearsome biblical imagery.

2. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

Having read The Tyger, venture a little further in the pair of small books from where his most famous poem comes. One again showing Blake’s fascination with opposites, The ‘Songs’ are Blake’s most accessible works, many of them famous in their own right, such as The Sick Rose, and The Lamb. It’s good that these are easier poems to read, because things are going to get a whole lot weirder before we’re done.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience

3. Jerusalem

Blake’s other most famous lines are the poem now known as Jerusalem, made famous since it was set to music as a hymn by Hubert Parry almost a hundred years after Blake’s death. You’ve heard it sung before rugby matches, or at the Last Night of the Proms, and many other places. In fact, these words of Blake’s were first found in the introduction to his epic work inspired by the earlier English poet John Milton. This is Blake at his very best: ‘nor shall my sword in sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land’. And speaking of Blake’s greatest works, this is where it gets tough…

4. The Epic Poems

1000 artworks: William Blake, A Naked Man in Flames, plate 26 from

Some of Blake is easy to read, much of it is not. During his life he composed a series of epic books, the longest and greatest of which is Jerusalem; an Emanation of the Giant Albion. Not to be confused with the short poem above, this work is vast in scale and at first sight, impenetrable. To understand Blake’s work, you need to know something about the man behind the poetry. He created a vast mythology, mixing Biblical elements with prophetic figures of his own, and stirred in experiences from his own life too. The result is often hard to interpret; in his lifetime he wrote more words than either Geoffrey Chaucer or his hero John Milton; and yet for most people this vast body of writing has gone undiscovered. Which is a shame because…

5. Revolutionary printing techniques

Blake could be called the first graphic novelist – he married pictures and words together in a single process on one printing plate, developing new techniques to do so. He taught himself to write backwards, so he could work straight onto the copper plate. And, to open up the very strangest side of Blake, he claimed that one of his revolutionary techniques was dictated to him by his dead brother in a vision.

The House of Death by William Blake (1795/circa 1805)

6. Blake and his brother

Blake was devoted to his younger brother, Robert. He taught him to draw and the brothers shared the same interests. When Robert became fatally ill, aged only 19, Blake tended to him around the clock. At the last moment, Blake reported that he saw Robert’s departing spirit ‘ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, clapping its hands for joy’. William never forgot his brother and said he ‘beheld him in visions’ – including the one in which Robert explained the new method of engraving. But visions of his brother weren’t the only ones to come knocking at Blake’s door – or window…

7. Blake and his visions

Good and Evil Angels (detail) by William Blake

Blake saw things that only he could see, but whose reality he took for granted. As a child of four, he claimed to have seen God staring in through the upstairs window of the family house. Wandering in the open countryside of Peckham Rye a few years later, he had one of his most famous visions: a ‘tree full of angels, with bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. Other moments were scarier: once he described the visitation of a huge, ghostly flea with a green and gold head – and drew it ‘from life’. Maybe it was this visionary and prophetic side of his character that gave him the insight and courage to march out of step with his times…

8. Radical Blake

William often worried that his radical views would lead to trouble. He was against Britain’s foreign wars of the time, highly critical of conventional religion and anti-monarchy. In 1803 he had a row with a soldier who had ‘trespassed’ in his garden – and frog-marched him forcefully back to the local pub. The soldier pressed charges and Blake was put on trial for sedition for having supposedly muttered ‘damn the King’. Though eventually cleared, it was a rude reminder to him of the dangers he ran in speaking his mind.

9. Radical Blake ii

Satan, Sin and Death by William Blake

But even domestically he was a radical, with unorthodox views on marriage, sex and love. He criticised enforced marriage and chastity, and defended the rights of women to self-fulfillment. Blake took this respect for women onto the street, once furiously attacking a man who was assaulting his wife in public. He was a loyal husband to Catherine, his wife of 45 years. Together they would sunbathe nude in their garden in Lambeth – recreating the story of Adam and Eve, to the great surprise of visitors.

10. His last day

William Blake

Utterly devoted to Catherine, the prospect of parting at death must have been terrible. And yet Blake’s visionary belief in the afterlife was so strong that he faced his last day without fear. The last shilling he spent was on a pencil so that he could keep drawing. As his strength failed, he then turned to his wife and said: ‘Stay Kate! I will draw your portrait, as you have ever been an angel to me’. He then started to sing hymns, and died not long after. Catherine continued to sell his prints and to converse with him daily. On the day of her own death, it is reported she was cheerful, and called out to Blake ‘as if he were in the next room’ that she was coming to join him.

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