Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blake's Childhood

At the age of four young William ran screaming from his nursery to report to his mother that he had seen God looking in the window. That was the first of many such bizarre confrontations. (They went on for forty years before he satisfactorily and definitively identified God.) A happier event occurred at the age of eight when he sighted a tree full of angels. Eagerly he reported this vision as well; this would have earned him paternal chastisement except for the intercession of a compassionate mother. No doubt he learned from the experience that in social intercourse one must take into account differences of perceptibility.
    Thank God I never was sent to school
    To be Flogd into following the Style of a Fool
    (Satiric Verses Erdman 510)

We know little about Blake's parents, but their care of him proves unusual understanding; they must have been fully aware that they had a genius on their hands. Perhaps their most important decision came on William's first day in school. In accordance with prevailing pedagogical custom the schoolmaster severely birched a student. Young Blake, acting upon his keen sense of moral outrage, rose from his desk and made an immediate exit. It was his first and last experience with formal education. His father showed amazing respect for the child's judgment.

That decision meant that Blake missed the usual brainwashing, or call it social conditioning, that modern psychologists understand as the primary function of general education. It meant that he never learned to think society's way. Instead he thought, he saw, heard, tasted, and touched through his own doors of perception, and they retained their childlike clarity throughout his life. Child, youth, or old man he always knew whether or not the emperor had clothes on.

Instead of school he directed his own education, primarily centered in the Bible. In the place of ordinary social conditioning Blake was Bible soaked. The stories of Ezra and Ezekiel were as real to him as childhood games. He must have known large portions of the Bible word for word because line after line, digested, assimilated, and recreated, appear in the poetry he wrote throughout his life. You can bet that made a difference!

Although by no means wealthy Blake's father enrolled him at the age of ten in Pars Drawing School. He intended to give the boy first class training as an artist, but William with characteristic sensitivity declined to be favored this way at the expense of his brothers. Instead he proposed apprenticeship to an engraver, a more modest financial undertaking. His father took him to see William Ryland, the Royal engraver, and prepared to put down a princely sum for the apprenticeship, but the child objected on the basis of Ryland's looks; he told his father that he thought the man would live to be hanged. Once again the elder Blake respected the child's judgment, and sure enough, twelve years later Ryland was hanged for forgery.

At fourteen Blake began a seven year apprenticeship with James Basire, an old fashioned but respectable engraver. Blessed with understanding parents the young artist was equally fortunate in his choice of a master. Basire, too, carefully preserved the boy's individuality and sensitivity against the downward drag of the world. When he found his other apprentices exploiting Blake's innocence, he sent the child to Westminster Abbey to sketch the gothic art found there.

For the next five years Blake spent his days in this and other religious monuments communing with the images of legend and history. His imagination was nurtured and strengthened by the spiritual treasures of his country. One day he saw Jesus walking with the Twelve--and painted them. On another occasion he was present, the sole artist as it happened, when the embalmed body of a King Edward of the 15th Century was exhumed for inspection by the Antiquary Society.

Some of Blake's formative experiences he shared with his contemporaries but not with us. For example 18th Century measures against crime were rather repressive by modern standards; petty crimes such as picking pockets were punished by hanging. A few blocks from Blake's home was Tyburn, the public gallows. In all likelihood on at least one occasion the impressionable lad witnessed a ten year old child being hung for his crimes. Tyburn became one of the mature poet's continually recurring symbols; he often equated it with Calvary, and he conceived of Satan as Accuser and Avenger.

No comments: