Throughout the 19th Century the works of William Blake suffered almost total neglect. His message simply surpassed contemporary currents of thought. A voracious reader, Blake mastered (and used) the symbology of the Bible, Plato, the Neoplatonists, Greek mythology, Paracelsus, Boehme, and God knows what else.
During the 20th century his reputation as a poet and thinker steadily grew. His most popular collection of poems, 'Songs of Innocence and Experience', has won general recognition as a classic.
Blake's three largest works, called the major prophecies, still offer technical difficulties that may defeat the casual reader. Once they were thought to represent the eccentric vagaries of an unbalanced mind; many people considered Blake insane. Intensive Blake scholarship over the past eighty years has slowly deciphered the cryptograms and clarified (at least some of) the mysteries.
What had seemed the most insane passages often proved on closer examination to be the most rational and meaningful. A growing body of translation and interpretation has made the major prophecies accessible and rewarding to the reader willing to take reasonable pains with them. They are now about as accessible to the general reader as is the Bible.
A systematic acquaintance with Blake's literary peculiarities will enhance the reader's enjoyment of his poetry. This chapter introduces a few guiding principles of his thought processes and literary and artistic style. First of all we should note that Blake combined word and picture in a unique synthesis.
Although he wrote unadorned poems and painted wordless pictures, his primary mode of expression was the illuminated manuscript, an intimate blend of graphic and verbal art. To provide a full exposition of this unique double form is beyond the modest goal of this book. At this point the illuminated form is simply mentioned as a most distinctive facet of Blake's art.
One simple clue to reading Blake concerns his use of dialogue; he spoke with many voices. He exercised this freedom especially with the larger prophecies, the three major works. These on first reading may seem to present insuperable difficulties, but the reader who pays close attention to the identity of the speaker at each point will thereby break down the forest into manageable groves of trees. In his three long poems Blake gave titles to various elements or speeches; they became units, landmarks or guideposts, casting light on what at first seemed general confusion.
In Night i of 'The Four Zoas' for example we find Enitharmon's Song of Death (FZ1-10.9; E305), the "Nuptial Song" of the "demons of the deep" (FZ1-13.20; E308), and the message of the Daughters of Beulah, which they call the "Wars of Death Eternal"(FZ1-21.13; E311). These three songs comprise three of the many selves of the human psyche; needless to say their ideas and attitudes vary immensely. They all describe the same event, but they see it, oh, so differently. They use the same words with different meanings. For example consider that what the daughters call "Death Eternal" the demons call marriage. In this way Blake challenges the reader and stretches his mind and immensely rewards whoever will accept the challenge. He gives us the end of a golden string.