Monday, August 19, 2013

Blake's Main Chance

(An improvement of an earlier post/)


[To] Mr [George] Cumberland, Bishopsgate, Windsor Great Park 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, 2 July 1800 Dear Cumberland  
............
I am still Employd in making Designs & little Pictures with now & then an Engraving & find that in future to live will not be so difficult as it has been It is very Extraordinary that London in so few years from a City of meer Necessaries or at l[e]ast a commerce of the lowest order of luxuries should have become a City of Elegance in some degree & that its once stupid inhabitants should enter into an Emulation of Grecian manners. There are now I believe as many Booksellers as there are Butchers & as many Printshops as of any other trade We remember when a Print shop was a rare bird in London & I myself remember when I thought my pursuits of Art a kind of Criminal Dissipation & neglect of the main chance which I hid my face for not being able to abandon as a Passion which is forbidden by Law & Religion, but now it appears to be Law & Gospel too, at least I hear so from the few friends I have dared to visit in my stupid Melancholy. Excuse this communication of sentiments which I felt necessary to my repose at this time. I feel very strongly that I neglect my Duty to my Friends, but It is not want of Gratitude or Friendship but perhaps an Excess of both. Let me hear of your welfare. Remember My & My Wifes Respectful Compliments to Mrs Cumberland & Family & believe me to be for Ever Yours WILLIAM BLAKE
(Extracts from Blake's letter no. 10 at Erdman 706)

Becoming an Individual

Blake was born an individual, a very distinctive human being, until he got married in his early twenties.

That carried responsibilities; as a bread-winner he of necessity more or less 'joined the crowd'. But he remained a misfit (we all know such people; you may be one), call them unwilling joiners. You must have sustenance of some kind: emotional or financial, usually both.

The crowd is made up of the kind of people who watch the ads to see what people are doing so they can do the same thing, so they know what to do. People in the crowd generally want to 'get ahead' (whatever that may mean); it takes the place of 'following your bliss'; instead you try to follow the 'bliss' of the person in the crowd whom you most admire, your role model, your 'father', so to speak. (Jesus had something to say about your 'father'):
"call no man father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven". (Matthew 23:9)

In particular Blake wanted to be able to 'hold his head up'--financially and intellectually. He lent his enormous artistic gift in the service of other people; he especially admired the famous artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds--until he saw the artistic chasm that loomed between the two. He joined the 'Matthew Group', made up of very gifted people..... He rubbed shoulders with the intelligencia until he found himself rubbing elbows; they proved to be just as frustrating as anyone else (they were appropriate provocation for An Island in the Moon; the Matthews Group had been relativized.

"I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Mans"
Jerusalem, 10.20; E153

When Blake said that, it marked his realization that the systems he had found in Reynolds and the Matthews Group simply didn't satisfy his needs and values. With The Four Zoas he tried to systematize in poetry his own spiritual values; it led to universal incomprehension by his friends, even his best friends.

In 1800 he wrote to his friend and benefactor, George Cumberland, expressing his emphatic frustration over the commercial art he had been impressed into following, what he called the main chance:
"I myself remember when I thought my pursuits of Art a kind of Criminal Dissipation neglect of the main chance which I hid my face for not being able to abandon as a Passion which is forbidden by Law and Religion"(Erdman 706)

But the Magic Moment, the veritable rebirth came at the Truchsessian Gallery  when he "was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door" (Letter 51, to Hayley; Erdman 756)

The Four Zoas turned into those two masterpieces, Milton and Jersalem. But in general he moved away from 'poetry to painting' . Finally there were the Illustrations to the Book of Job; it might be called his Last Testament.

3 comments:

Vincent said...

Thank you for this, Larry. the letter, and your comments below it, give a sharp and sudden insight to the everyday personality of this interesting Londoner, giant in talent yet socially on a lower rung.

(I see Blake dimly reflected in a near neighbour, an extraordinary character who's drafted a couple of novels based on his years as a taxi driver, but now devotes himself to writing musicals (one called Svengali; an earlier one was based on Silas Marner) - whilst his day-job is driving a van to deliver sandwiches to office buildings.)

Larry said...

Thanks, Vincent; that reminds me of myself. I too was a cab driver, and in fact spent my life at jobs below my 'grade level'. I wrote my primer like Walt Whitman on the governments time.

ellie said...

Look for a future post on Blake and Whitman. You have opened an exciting thread to follow.