The Only Valiant Way to Complain Is to Create: William Blake and the Stubborn Courage of the Unexampled


“The Eye altering alters all.”


The Only Valiant Way to Complain Is to Create: William Blake and the Stubborn Courage of the Unexampled

In the first days of a bleak London December in 1827, a small group of mourners gathered on a hill in the fields just north of the city limits at Bunhill Fields, named for “bone hill,” longtime burial ground for the disgraceful dead. There, in what was now a dissenters’ cemetery, the English Poor Laws had ensured a pauper’s funeral for the man who had died five days earlier in his squalid home and was now being lowered into an unmarked grave. The man whose “Songs of Innocence” would light the creative spark in the young Maurice Sendak’s imagination a century-some later. The man Patti Smith would celebrate as “the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation” — a guiding sun in the human cosmos of creativity.

The people who were aware William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) cherished his overwhelming kindness, his capacity for delight even during his frequent and fathomless depressions, his “expression of great sweetness, but bordering on weakness — except when his features are animated by expression, and then he has an air of inspiration about him.” He was remembered for the strange, koan-like things he said about Jesus (He is God alone. You are the only God, as I am.The story is about the successful artists who saw his poverty as evidence of his failure.My visions are mine and I have peace. They traded their birthrights for pottage.The nature and purpose of creativityThe tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.)

Art from Blake’s First Book of Urizen, 1796. Prints available.

He saw beyond his world and could see the future, channeling his visions using whatever tools were available. It was not the medium that mattered, but its pliancy as he bent it to his vision of the mystery that is itself the message — the message we call art: He was a painter, a poet, a philosopher without meaning to, an early prophet of panpsychism, a mystic who lived not to solve the mystery but to revel in it, to encode it in verses and etch it onto copper plates and stain it onto canvases and seed it into souls for centuries to come.

He was an artist who held his own standards and had his own guide sun. Like Beethoven, with whom he shared a death-year and the stubborn unwillingness to compromise on the artistic vision he experienced as life, Blake was determined to make what he wanted to make and to make it on his own terms — in a world unready for the art and unfriendly to the terms.

It is a great act of creativity.

Another engraving from Blake’s Paradise Lost.

In other words, William Blake, who was alive centuries before any technology could be used to prove it, became the first person to ever conjecture that the 1,000 True Fans theory. He knew what we all eventually realize, if we are awake and courageous enough: that the best way — and the only effective way — to complain about the way things are is to make new and better things, untested and unexampled things, things that spring from the gravity of creative conviction and drag the status quo like a tide toward some new horizon.

Poverty is no friend to the creative spirit, nor to this artist who knew that “Man has no body distinct from his Soul for that called Body is a portion of Soul.” To feed the body, Blake worked long wearying hours as an engraver for hire, squinting at sheets of copper to scratch and cross-hatch shapes onto them in intricate patterns of dots and lines. “Engraving is Eternal work,” he sighed to a client who grumbled that a project was taking too long.

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death).” Engraving from William Blake’s commission to illustrate feminism founding mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s book of moral education for children.

All the while, Blake’s mind bustled and bloomed with the transcendent chaos of his own ideas. The ink was soaked in small canals in the etchings, creating stark but delicate black-and white shapes that were alive with light. He then pressed the plates onto the paper.

It was beautiful, but it was intensely toilsome — he could barely make a living illustrating other people’s work, and it left no time for his own art. He long for an alternative technique to achieve the same results in less time, and less effort.

No such technique existed.

It was so ingenious that he created it.

He decided to not cut out the designs on the plates using his sharpened steel burin. Instead, he painted the copper directly with a quill/brush dipped into acid-resistant varnish. After that, acid was used to remove a layer from the surface and reveal the embossed shapes he had drawn. It was based on chemistry, creative restlessness and chemistry.

It came to him, he said, as a message from his dead brother’s spirit.

Jacob’s DreamWilliam Blake (1805). This print is also available as a stationery card, a mask, or as an image.

Blake was given complete control and creative freedom with the new technique. Suddenly, he could combine text and image on a single page, in a single process, which neither traditional engraving nor etching could do — both required separate space for lettering and a second production pass for type-setting the words.

Only one issue was with his invention. Because he still had to press a plate onto each page to make a print, all text he wrote onto that plate was printed backwards.

He learned mirror-writing.

Art from Blake’s First Book of Urizen, 1796.

William Blake suddenly felt free to be creative, and was no longer restricted by the machine. He estimated that his new method allowed him to produce what he desired for only a quarter the price. His business was one-man, he created in his own place and used his own tools what would normally require entire craftsmen and artisans with different skills and working in various workshops.

Before blogs, zines and Instagram were even invented, William Blake created an independent platform for sharing his creativity, just as he desired them to.

Blake did not underestimate the importance of Blake’s innovations. Blake wrote and printed his 1793 book. Prospectus, addressed “TO THE PUBLIC,” in which he announced that he had “invented a method of Printing both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was nothing less than a manifesto for creative self-liberation:

Poorty and obscurity are the two main causes of poverty in the Labors of the Artist, Poet, Musician. Milton and Shakespeare were unable to publish their own works.

[…]

The Author can be certain of his rewards if he creates a way of printing that combines the artist and poet.

In William Blake vs. the World (public library) — the best book on Blake in the seven decades since Alfred Kazin’s masterpiece — John Higgs captures just how radical this was, both as a technology of creation and as an ethos:

The printing of the 18th century was complex and required many skilled tradesmen. The book was written by one person, an editor edited it and the text was typed by another. One artist created the illustrations that an engraver needed to make. A printer then put every page through the presses, one for the text and another for the images. Sometimes, the pages were hand colored by another specialist and then sold by a bookseller. Thanks to Blake’s new technique, he had the ability to do all these tasks himself. His publishing business was one man, with him writing, designing and printing illustrated works. Although he was still in the Georgian era, Blake was practising the “do it yourself” ethos of punk rock.

Art from Blake’s America: The Prophecy, 1793. This print is also available as stationery card.

This is the place where Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or Cynics might laugh. What’s the matter? He was a pauper.Blake, just like he had in his letter, would wince at this point. If I were to have any earthly fame it would make me sorry, because whatever man’s natural glory is can be so detracting from his spiritual glory.

He was his own persona, he made exactly what he wanted, and it was enough that he had a small group of dedicated followers who were his collectors. That was all he needed to sustain his existence. He never lived to enjoy it. (Centuries later, this ethos — which I believe is the natural state of the creative spirit — still raises eyebrows as radicalism.)

In the very act of this choice, he was modeling a kind of moral beauty that reached beyond art, into life itself — an unwillingness to accept the limitations imposed upon any present by the momentum of its past, a winged willingness to do whatever it takes to transcend them, which begins with a new way of seeing: seeing the limitations and seeing the alternate possibilities. All Eye Altering is possible.

Art from Blake’s America: The Prophecy, 1793. This print is also available as stationery card.

Higgs wrote:

Blake’s politics… existed in what he created. Blake may not have been able to feel empathy for the poor but he didn’t spend much time trying to improve their lives. Instead, he believed that the imagination was the tool needed to improve society, and… would do more to liberate people than canvassing or protesting. This would require integrity, self-belief and hard work.

It is here that we find the strongest expression of Blake’s politics. True politics does not consist of ideologies or a philosophy to be discussed, but rather an attitude towards the world that is implemented in daily life. It is not the beliefs you say you hold, your politics are what they actually look like. You don’t identify with them or use them to validate your worth as human beings. Politics are expressed by the decisions you make and how you treat others. This is where hypocrisy, vanity and ego disappear. Your politics are revealed every day in the many choices you make. Who you work for, whether you volunteer for charity work, if you become a landlord, whether you eat meat, the extent to which you pursue money and consumer goods — these are the types of decisions in which our true politics are expressed… Blake needed commercial engraving work to keep a roof over his head. He was also adamant about not compromising his work. His art was an antinomian individualist, he did not ask permission and he answered to no one.

“Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” by William Blake, circa 1796, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Prints available.

Blake put it beautifully, but also bluntly.

In any age or country, there cannot be more than three or four great Poets or Painters.

For an uncompromising counterpart in music, revisit the story of how Beethoven made his “Ode to Joy,” then savor Esperanza Spalding’s soulful strings-and-voice rendition of Blake’s short existentialist poem “The Fly” and this lovely vintage picture-book celebrating his uncommon legacy.


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