From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
William Blake, the great radical poet and champion of the poor, is the subject of E.P. Thompson’s last book. Lee Humber reviews the book and looks at the ideas, life and politics which contributed to Blake’s art
William Blake was an engraver by trade, having served a seven year apprenticeship during the 1770s. Almost none of his poetry was published in the conventional printed form. Following his dual vocations as poet and graphic artist simultaneously, he printed most of it himself, with text and illustrations commonly mixed together using a method of etching he invented himself.
The certain amount of financial independence that his trade afforded him is important in his development, and helps us to assess Blake’s class position and subsequently the development of his ideas. He was a member of what would have been called some years earlier ‘the middling sort’, a grouping of an immense range of social gradations and aspirations situated between the ruling class and the ‘labouring poor’.
Some, but not all, tradesmen and artisans had a degree of occupational independence greater than that of some of their more affluent neighbours which both allowed and encouraged a more radical anti-establishment and sometimes republican consciousness. This was certainly true of William Blake himself but it was also true, in varying degrees, of the tradition which he inherited and which influenced his thought. This tradition stretches back to the English Revolution.
There is an off icial version of history, the sort we are taught in schools and which goes to make up the ‘common sense’ of our society. This has been described as the ‘propaganda of the victors’, the version of events our rulers want us to draw our ideas and opinions from. This is true of all sorts of history – political, economic and intellectual. The history of ideas has traditionally been seen as a progression through the 18th and 19th centuries of the ‘Enlightenment’, resulting in the victories of rationalism. political economy, and liberalism.
However, it is only relatively recently that enlightened historians have come to realise that those ideas themselves were developed through the interplay of other, often directly opposed, ideas.
After the Diggers and Ranters – who offered some of the most radical ideas during the period of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century – all sorts of splits, strands and currents developed within the radical religious tradition.
In the 1780s and 1790s there was an explosion of anti-rationalism and there were new approaches to the world all across Western Europe. These were spurred on by the social and intellectual tensions around the French Revolution. This took all sorts of forms including masonic rituals, animal magnetism, millenarian speculation, astrology, the revival of alchemy and mystic circles. In Blake’s London men and women joined all sorts of religious and semi-religious dissenting groups like the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem church, the Universalists, the Muggletonians, William Huntington’s group and Richard Brothers’ group who proclaimed himself the ‘nephew’ of the Almighty. They argued against one another, picked up ideas from each other, all the time struggling to define their own intellectual, moral and artistic sense of society.
It is from this tradition of informal education and intense argument that Blake emerged as did the likes of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and Robert Owen.
Blake’s moment of most intense poetic achievement came during the French Revolution. It is only with an eye to the social and political developments of that time that we can come to a full understanding of his great poetic works Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
As the Swedenborgian church Blake subscribed to lurched away from active involvement in social events with the onset of the French Revolution, the poet’s radical stance forced him on into both support for the revolutionaries and bitter criticism of his erstwhile colleagues. His savage companion poem to The Garden of Love makes his position clear:
I saw a chapel all of gold
The journey from the Garden of Love to the sty was the journey from innocence to experience, from idealism to activism or ‘energy’ as Blake put it. The sty was that of advanced radicalism, the sty of Tom Paine, Joel Barlow, Joseph Johnson the dissenting publisher and Mary Wollstonecraft. Since Edmund Burke, the champion of the anti-revolutionary camp in England, had described the revolutionaries as ‘the swinish multitude’ the radicals had adopted the title, giving their pamphlets names like Pig’s Meat, Rights of Swine and Hogs Wash with contributions from ‘Porker’ and the like.
Blake’s most obvious contribution to the cause of English radicalism at this time was the poem London:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
There are a number of themes to pick out from this powerful vision of ‘the human condition as hell’, as Thompson puts it. Firstly, this is not a vision from outside by some objective onlooker. London is seen and suffered from within, from Blake the active participant in events. With the repetition of ‘every’, the lack of punctuation from verse to verse and the general construction of the poem this is a unitary experience, each facet of the picture he paints intrinsically linked with the next. Although sad and compassionate it’s also an angry poem.
All of this is constructed within, as Thompson puts it, ‘the developing logic of market relations. Blake does not only list symptoms: within the developing imagery which unites the poem he also discloses their cause. From the first introduction of “harter’d” he never loses hold of the image of buying and selling’. At the heart of this poem, as with many of his other works, lies the notion of class antagonisms.
This book isn’t just a testament to the greatness of Blake and his effect on the development of British radical culture. It is also a brilliant epitaph to the life of E.P. Thompson. Its a superbly crafted book, full of great insight and painstaking documentation. The chapter The Muggletonian Archive shows us Thompson tracking down the last living Muggletonian like a latter day version of Sherlock Holmes, tracing obscure tracts and documents in order to establish the influence that sect might have had on the young Blake. It’s brilliant detective work and brilliant history from below.
Witness Against the Beast – William Blake and the Moral Law
Cambridge University Press £17.95
Last updated: 4 March 2017