In the splendor of his innocence and irascibility, Blake sits naked under the arbor in his back yard, discoursing to his wife, Kate, of Powers and Emanations. Before him pass the ghosts of Saint-Just, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Hébert, to be judged by his integrity. He was really all the French Revolution that England ever had. In fact, except for Shelley and a brief flurry in the adolescence of the country-house and UNESCO set, he is just about all the revolutionary poet England ever had, of any kind. It was John Wesley who gave symbolic form to middle-class revolt in England. Methodism was Englands Jacobinism. Blakes revolution might be called the shadow side of the one across the Channel. The French enthroned the goddess Reason. Blake hypostatized the nonrational forces of the soul. They looked forward to a Utopia of contractual relations and delegated authority. He spoke for the integral person, the pure act, the vital relationship which Buber was to call I and thou.
Following the ill-informed snobbery of T.S. Eliot a lot of nonsense has been written about Blakes lack of tradition, about how he made up his system as he went along. It has been dutifully repeated in most reviews of this book. Nothing could be less true. Mr. Eliots tradition goes back to Aquinas as interpreted in the pages of LAction Française. Blakes goes back to the Memphite Theology and the Pyramid Texts. It is the tradition of organized heterodoxy. It is all there, from the millennia-old Doctrine of Emanations to the current fantasies of the Neo-Druids. True, the heterodox have always thought of themselves as possessed of a kind of factual knowledge. They called themselves Gnostics. Actually, Blake or Hermes Trismegistus, this is the art of providing the heart with images of its alienation. If the individual or society can project the dilemmas which reason cannot cope with, they can be controlled if not mastered. This was Blakes function. He saw the oncoming Business Civilization and prepared a refuge, a symbolic fortress and haven. The dramatis personae of his Prophetic Books are of relatively little importance. Fundamentally he accomplished his mission by being a certain kind of person. And he did succeed. Shorn of its paraphernalia of myth, we call it Romanticism. Blake was really the first mythographer of Romanticism. It is no accident that the German philosophic fathers of the movement were to look back to the very similar Jakob Boehme. And Blakes judgment stands unaltered, whether in Baudelaires wounded soldier unable to budge under the heap of the dead, or Dickens with his pure Blakean outraged innocence caught in the dark Satanic mills.
Because Blake was above all else the kind of person he was, his letters are of primary importance. Like most letters by most poets they are mostly taken up with efforts to get money. Exceptionally among British poets, Blake was genuinely poor not very poor, but poor enough. The poverty of the British Romantic poets is seen from the point of view of the caste of literary gentlemen the rectory, the Reform Club, the halls of Balliol. Keats was not really poor, but most unlearned people are under the impression that even Shelley was. Blake needed money all the time, just to live, and had to work to get it, at a trade. It was this independence from the caste patterns of his day that preserved his innocence and hence his rage and hence the validity of his judgment. What Blakes letters give you is the anatomy of uninvolvement. They should, and never will, be taught in schools, but they are pondered, I hope, in a school not built with human hands.
This review of The Letters of William Blake (ed. Geoffrey Keynes) originally appeared in The Nation (2 March 1957) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1957. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.