A Tough Carapace: Configuring Blake’s Mysticism through his Visionary Paintings and Engravings

Dr. Subhadeep Paul


This paper attempts a holistic examination of certain revisionary opinions on William Blake’s non-poetical output (his paintings in particular and some of his engravings). It analyses how they have been perceived as a conduit for his projection of an individuated conceptualisation of mysticism, which runs through the lifeblood of his popular poetry as well. Blake’s subjective idealism was profoundly founded on an intuitional projection of experiencing divinity through the principle of contemplative metaphysicality and an underlying aesthetic of unifying love. This shaped the quintessence of a private symbology that proved deterministic in formulating a personal ambition for him and which became a source of hermetic reliance, via which he made his individualistic creativity functional. This paper inspects how Blake’s paintings and engravings, on which he worked meticulously over long periods of time, became the crustacean materiality that encapsulated his mystical abstractions. As such, these aesthetic productions became the basis for which subsequent art critics and art historians have either valorised or castigated Blake as an eccentric genius.

Keywords: mysticism, symbology, visionary, apocalypse, prophecy

Although primarily noted today as a poet, William Blake, for quite a long time, was renowned as a painter, engraver and symbolist. Blake’s biographers like Alexander Gilchrist, Mark Schorer and Peter Ackroyd explored the multifaceted personality of this artist and elucidated how Blake surmounted mono-dimensionality itself and sought a quorum of ideas that could actualise what he himself described as ‘higher innocence’ – a plane of reference where ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ got juxtaposed and even synthesised. One must definitely mention in this regard the fact that had it not been for the wise decision of his father (who prioritised Blake’s vocational training over a theoretical education), we might have had a different Blake today, if at all, we received him the way we do. Blake’s poems are apparently simple (as far as their outward texture and private symbology is concerned).

According to Philip Coppens in his web write-up ‘William Blake: What paintings of visions come,’ Blake was an iconoclast in this regard because found in the medium of paintings and engravings a platform to validate and fulfil “his personal ambition in life” and his “spiritual quest” (Coppens n.pag). To know the real Blake is still a daunting task, since he captured the subtle interstice between the belated neoclassical Augustanism and the flowering of liberal Romanticism. It is all the more complex because both in the capacity of a poet and a painter, Blake relied on his mystical visions that he experienced from his childhood, which received appropriate expression in the wake of his vocational education, which his father had the apt wisdom to impart to him. Blake was a master craftsman from the very start but it was the sheer tenor of his aesthetic vision that enabled him to create a private symbology of interpretative concern.

Blake’s idea of establishing linkages between macrocosmic and microcosmic entities was fostered by Blake’s notion of correspondences observed: “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower. / Hold heaven in the palm of your hand, / And eternity in an hour” (William Blake, Augeries of Innocence, n.pag). In his paintings, we observed Blake’s pronouncement of the ‘hermetics’ – the idea that everything was double. In fact, Blake is one of the fundamental proponents of the fact that the development of the history of ideas in the western world is founded on a plane of binary thinking, which is the fount of Manicheanism.  Peter Ackroyd, Blake’s biographer, observed that Blake marked a progression from time to timelessness: “the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity” (Green, n.pag). Much of Blake’s poetry follows the schema of understanding whereby he sought a secular application of biblical ideas with a workable interfusion of Celtic, Megalithic and Druidic mythical traditions.

In this relentless mythification of the past, Blake began seeing things in terms of his idealised conception of Albion – a symbolic Eden with a British nature. Things were utopic or dystopic based on the relative position of the entity in question from the ontological perspective of Albion.

In his own time, Blake was not hailed as an artist of original calibre, unlike today. But Blake was always personally convinced that there were deeper truths beyond the non-Christian lore and myths. In his paintings, Blake sought to capture this, which is why it is sharply noticeable that Blake, the painter, did not paint pastorals like shepherds in a landscape or Baby Jesus. Instead, his paintings were apocalyptic to the point of being weird for some. But critical introspection reveals that they are, by no means, inscrutable. On the contrary, they have a latent potential for a searching critical enquiry. This paper insists on the thesis that Blake’s paintings were motivated by realisations that were abstract but definitely had a palpable design to them.

Blake’s visions that he had from his childhood were definitely a contributing factor to the aesthetic vision that shaped his paintings. Blake did not arrive at his conceptual framework, so much by reading, as by his visions which stayed with him throughout his life. With time, they did not necessarily grow with him in intensity. But nonetheless, they continued to exercise a formidable influence on his poetic vision in particular and aesthetic vision in general, even in his advanced years.

There are certain biographical aspects of Blake that definitely needs mention here. Not only did he himself believe that this gift was innate but at the same time he cherished the idea that the visions were prophetic and choric for him and though they were perhaps innate for all during ‘Innocence’, with him, there was a telling retention of it beyond childhood. Visions such that concerning Peckham Rye, his supposed encounter with Ezekiel, the ‘Spiritual Sun’, Of “Jerusalem” (as referred to in the movie Chariots of Fire), God putting “his (Blake’s) head to the window”, “a tree full of angels” et al, offered Blake a profound glimpse into futurity – all of which contributed to the unique paintings that he left for posterity.

Coming to the paintings specific, it must be mentioned that they are as varied as they are numerous. The Ancient of Days, The Body of Abel Found by Adam & Eve, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels, Jacob’s Ladder, The Whirlwind of Lovers, Adam Naming the Beasts, Eve Naming the Birds, The Dance of Albion and Jerusalem are some of Blake’s most noted works. One of the most meaningful of Blake’s paintings is Newton (1795). It signifies Blake’s opposition to the Enlightenment. In his own words, “Art is the tree of life, Science is the tree of death”. This led to the understanding that Newton’s scientific materialism was “single-fold” in its vision but Blake’s perceived his Romantic idealism as “four-fold”. In fact, the deistic view of God as a distant creator, having no role in human affairs was anathema to Blake, which is why Newton’s natural religion of scientific materialism was sterile for Blake. Newton, as Blake’s eponymous painting shows, thus became part of Blake’s infernal trinity (along-with Francis Bacon and John Locke). In The Ghost of a Flea, Blake capitalised on the trend for fantastic, spiritual art and revealed his panache for unearthly, supernatural panels that would both amuse and amaze his friends and audience. Although it is a reduced miniature portrait, it is monumental in its imaginative scope. Blake’s interactions with John Varley (who specialised in astrology and zodiacal physiognomy) led to the envisaging of a “spiritual apparition of a flea” that is part a muscular and nude human and part a vampire with a venomous, slithering tongue, whose bloodthirsty instinct is consolidated by its bowl of blood. Traditions of fairy iconography are understandable because the mythico-symbolic creature holds an acorn and a thorn in its hands. The imagery was possibly internalised by Blake in an 1819 séance, where Blake was said to be notified that the souls of men such as Voltaire and Moses took possession of flea-bodies, since they were “by nature Blood thirsty to excess” (Kuijsten, 72). The Red Dragon sequence of paintings are another unique collection by Blake, most symbolically powerful being The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. it is one of the most powerful synthesis of Innocence and Experience in a state of vivid juxtaposition. The painting where these two categories come together shows a unique co-existence of contraries, existing within a singular frame. Made of pen and grey ink with watercolour over graphite, this dramatic watercolour marks a cosmic interplay between good and evil. Blake alludes to the Book of Revelations, the final book of the New Testament that warns Christians of the perils of spiritual defection. From 1805 to 1810, Blake was commissioned to create over a hundred paintings, depicting various scenes from the Book of Revelations. The Great Red Dragon was so powerful that it could, with its giant tail, cast” the stars from heaven to earth (Rev. 12:3-4, KJV). In a paper entitled “Pictorial Apocalypse: Blake’s ‘Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun”, Terence A. Hoagwood opines that the very positioning of the bodies of the dragon and the woman, in terms of a vertical alignment, is a kind of ‘pathos formulae for visionary configuration’ (Hoagwood 13). The implications are intrapsychic. Pictorially, the doctrines of wrath and forgiveness are vividly juxtaposed, so as to create Hoagwood rightly opines that “Blake’s radical idealism marries the heaven of spiritual vision with the hell of earthly wars and revolution” (Hoagwood 21).  

Perhaps one of the most innovative of the Blake-Varley partnership is the painting entitled Nebuchadnezzar, featuring the old Babylonian king, whom Blake took to mythical proportions. Though not reportedly fully complete, it captures the unique subtleties involving the transformation of man into beast. King Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment for inordinate pride was his demotion to the status of a wild animal. Moral corruption and bestiality go hand and hand in this work and it is ironically striking to note how despite his larger than human sinewy prowess, Nebuchadnezzar’s face is one of utter horror.

The Guardian lists a select list of top twenty of Blake’s paintings as his best works. According to Fiona Maddocks, this selection is based on a display at Ashmolean, Oxford that ran from 4 December to 1 March 2015. Other than some of the works mentioned above, notable paintings mentioned in this category include The Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre, Satan, The Dance of Albion and Jerusalem. The Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre is an important watercolour with pen and ink depicts the moment Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus after the crucifixion and found two angels hovering where the body had lain. It reminds us of the Peckham Rye vision that Blake had at the age of eight about the tree full of angels “bespangling every bough like stars” (Maddocks n.pag). The Ancient of Days became the frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, depicting Urizen measuring the black void. This is the same evil god of America a Prophecy that Blake kept working on till his last days, “tinting the colours, as he was propped up on his sickbed” (Maddocks n.pag). Satan, fundamentally an undated engraving after Henry Fuseli, remains a nonpareil of imagination. In this experimental work, Blake resorted to the French engraving method of the 18th Century that prioritised the use of the oval pointed ‘echoppe’ needle. The fine wavy lines suggest what is known as “a dot-and-lozenge pattern” that suggest the tactical reality of the Danteseque inferno – the hell within and the hell without becoming one. By contrast, The Dance of Albion (also known as Albion Rose or Glad Day), is a relatively utopian image that dates back to 1780. ‘Albion’ is not only the ancient name for Britain but is also central to his ‘Four Zoas’ private mythology (comprising of characters like Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah and Urthona). One must note that the American Revolution was in mid-flow during this time and Blake, personally, had been caught up in a street mob in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. To Blake fanatics, the image of this part-Christ, part-Vitruvian naked youth, standing on a rock, “casting aside worldly shackles to greet the radiant dawn” (Maddocks n.pag), speaks volumes about his futuristic Romantic anticipations. The face of Albion is benign and welcoming, much like that of Adam in his painting Adam Naming the Beasts (1810), which features a youthful Adam very closely resembling the curly haired young Blake himself.

In his oft-quoted phrase “dark Satanic Mills” (taken from ‘Jerusalem’), Blake, a radical Christian, might have attacked orthodoxy in Christianity. He might have also critiqued avaricious industry, if he was particularly referring to Albion flour mills in Lambeth, which burned down spectacularly in 1791. What strikes most is Blake’s frontispiece to his last prophetic book Jerusalem that depicts an unidentified figure carrying a mysterious orb inviting us through a door. Whether this is an invitation towards death, the poem itself is hard to pinpoint but one can definitely say that it signals a new beginning.

In 2005, an art historian Mei-Ying-Sung claimed that Blake’s plates show perfect evidence of years of toil and repeated errors of a struggler. Of course there are die-hard Blake fans, who believe in the contrary, that Blake was a spontaneous genius and an indubitable “master of the medium” (Mei-Ying-Sung, n.pag). Whatever be the case, Blake’s paintings are perfect testimony to the fact that it took immense art and craft alike for the apprentice to become masterly in his iconoclastic mode of self-fashioning.

Works Cited

Coppens, Philip. “William Blake: What paintings of visions come.” Eye of the Psychic.               


Green, Andrew. “William Blake’s visions: Andrew Green explores the presence of vision in

Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” The English Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 2004, p. 5+.

Hoagwood, Terence Allan. “Pictorial Apocalypse: Blake’s “Great Red Dragon and the

Woman Clothed with the Sun.” Colby Library Quarterly, vol.21, no.1, Mar., 1985, pp.11-21. digitalcommons.colby.edu/cq/vol21/iss1/4.

Kuijsten, Marcel. Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes Bicameral Mind

Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society, 2007.

Maddocks, Fiona. “The 10 best works by William Blake.” the guardian. 21 Nov. 2014.

www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/nov/21/the-10-best-works-by-william blake.

Sung, Mei-Ying. William Blake and the Art of Engraving. Routledge, 2009.

About the author:

Dr. Subhadeep Paul is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of English, School of Literature, Language and Cultural Studies, Bankura University. He had formerly taught at the P.G. Department of English, Maulana Azad College, Kolkata and was a Guest faculty at the P.G. Department of English, Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata. He was a UGC Senior Research Fellow at Jadavpur University. His M. Phil was on a re-evaluation of South Asian diasporic sensibility in Indian Expatriate Literature and his Ph. D was a critique of East-West cultural polarizations in Indian English Fiction. He has co-edited Anxieties, Influences & After: A Collection of Critical Essays on Postcolonialism & Neocolonialism (Worldview Publishers, in association with Wimbledon Press, UK, 2009). Finite Sketches, Infinite Reaches (2009), his first book of poems, from Writers Workshop, Kolkata, received critical acclaim. He was Co-Director of a Two-Year Major Research Project (2016-18) entitled “Discoursing the Homeless Elderly: Tropes, Desires, Containment” (funded by the I.C.S.S.R, in collaboration with The University of Swansea, UK). His fictional and non-fictional writings have featured in Narrow Road Journal, Blue Minaret Literary Journal, Earthen Lamp Journal, The Four Quarters Magazine, Northeast Review, The Sunday Statesman, The Telegraph, Hindustan Times and Luath Press, Edinburgh.