William Blake: Forerunner of Romanticism

To mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of this English painter, poet, prophet and visionary, Theatre of Eternal Values performed William Blake’s Divine Humanity in London in November 2007, the first ever theatre group to have performed Blake’s prophetic books on stage. It was the celebrated centrepiece of the Blake 250 Festival in London’s West End.
In September 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland, Theatre of Eternal Values performed a condensed version of the play presenting key moments in Blake’s life. Devised as a multi-media touring production with an international group of actors Eternity in an Hour featured original songs, live music, contemporary dance and full colour images of Blake’s paintings.
The play confronts the time-worn dilemma of ‘Why, if there is an omniscient, omnipotent God, is there suffering in the world? What is the purpose of this life?’ Blake provides his own prophetic answers and pushes human understanding to its limits to reveal the spiritual essence of man.
William Blake (1757-1827) He was born at 28a Broad Street, Soho, on 28 November 1757, and he continued to live and work in London for most of his life. He was an engraver, printer (he invented a new technique of printing known as ‘relief etching’), painter, poet, prophet and visionary.
From his early childhood, he saw visions of angels and conferred with the spirits of great personalities from ancient times. After dying in 1787, his deceased brother Robert became Blake’s ‘spirit guide’ and inspiration for him throughout his prophetic life. Blake’s marriage to Catherine was long and happy. They regularly worked side by side in his workshop, but had no children. She outlived him by four years and worked hard to safeguard his spiritual and artistic legacy.
He lived through an era of great political and social upheaval: the American War of Independence (1775-83), the French Revolution (1789), the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and the far-reaching social impact of the Industrial Revolution (1760s-1840s). Moved by the social injustices of industrial England, Blake captured the mood of his times through his paintings and poetry. Greatly misunderstood by the greater part of eighteenth century English society, Blake is today recognised as a leading English poet and artist, confounding the intellect with works that appeal directly to the human spirit.
He prophesised the coming of the Golden Age through the awakening of Divinity within human beings (Divine Humanity) and dedicated his life to the liberation of mankind from the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of its conditioning, materialism and rational ego.
Contentious and controversial during his life time, an exhibition of William Blake’s paintings in 1809 was mocked by critics. A review in The Examiner newspaper dismissed his work as that of an ‘unfortunate lunatic’. Fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge hailed him as a mystic and a genius.
Towards the end of his life he finally received the full respect and understanding of a group of promising young artists called ‘The Shoreham Ancients’, who included painters Samuel Palmer and George Richmond. Surrounded by his admirers, he died on 12 August 1827 at 3 Fountain Court near the banks of the River Thames in London.
Forerunner of Romanticism
Poet, painter, prophet and visionary his poems, the texts of which he engraved and illustrated, include Songs of Innocence (1798), Songs of Experience (1794), various “Prophetic Books”, Milton (1808) and Jerusalem (1820). His watercolours for The Book of Job (1826) and Dante’s Divine Comedy (1827) were inspired by his visions and engravings in the style of Michelangelo.
Blake’s poems mark the beginning of Romanticism and the rejection of the Age of Enlightenment. His watercolours and engravings, like his writings, were only fully appreciated after his death.
Recognised today as one of the greatest artists Britain has every produced, William Blake spoke out against the terrible human cost of materialism and in every aspect of his inspirational works expressed the indomitable power of the human spirit. “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.”
William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence, 1803.
Ita Marguet, October 2009
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text including Howard Productions programme for Eternity in an Hour performed in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, 18 September 2009.