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Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence… William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein… He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation.”

Patti Smith Sings “The Tyger” and Reflects on William Blake’s Transcendent Legacy as a Guiding Sun in the Cosmos of Creativity

“The 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,” William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) wrote in his most beautiful letter — a soaring defense of the imagination. A genius both tragic and transcendent, Blake was among humanity’s deepest and farthest seers — of truth, of beauty, of the universe in a grain of sand, of the human condition in a fly. His poetry and art went on to influence generations of creators as varied as Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who built his own singular sensibility upon a Blakean foundation, to Allen Ginsberg, who so cherished Blake that he recorded a strange and wonderful LP singing Blake’s Songs of Innocence with an electric orchestra.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

But no artist in our time, and possibly none in all of time, has been a more spirited exponent of Blake’s enduring genius than Patti Smith.

Smith discovered Blake as a girl, after her mother purchased for her at a church bazaar a handsome 1927 edition of his Songs of Innocence, faithful to the 1789 original, which Blake printed and illuminated himself. Mesmerized by the exquisite marriage of text and image, the young Patti spent hours deciphering Blake’s calligraphy and absorbing every detail of his rich, sensitive illustrations. She returned to him again and again throughout her life, holding him up as consolation for the strife of struggling artists and eventually honoring him in a song. When her dear friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg fell mortally ill, she fetched a volume of Blake bound in blood-red leather from his library — a copy in which, she recalls, “each poem was deeply annotated in Allen’s hand, just as Blake had annotated Milton” — and read it by his dying bedside.

In 2007, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Smith edited a selection of his verses simply titled Poems (public library) — “a bit of Blake, designed as a bedside companion or to accompany a walk in the countryside, to sit beneath a shady tree and discover a portal into his visionary and musical experience.” She channels her reverence for the eternal artist into the uncommonly poetic prose of her introduction:

The eternal loom spins the immaculate word. The word forms the pulp and sinew of innocence. A newborn cries as the cord is severed, seeming to extinguish memory of the miraculous. Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos.

William Blake never let go of the loom’s golden skein. The celestial source stayed bright within him, the casts of heaven moving freely in his sightline. He was the loom’s loom, spinning the fiber of revelation; offering songs of social injustice, the sexual potency of nature, and the blessedness of the lamb. The multiple aspects of woven love.

His angels entreat, drawing him through the natural aspects of their kingdom into the womb of prophecy. He dips his ladle into the spring of inspiration, the flux of creation.

[…]

He is a messenger and a god himself. Deliverer, receptacle and fount.

Smith ends her introduction with a splendid invitation, or perhaps an incantation:

William Blake felt that all men possessed visionary power… He did not jealously guard his vision; he shared it through his work and called upon us to animate the creative spirit within us.

[…]

To take on Blake is not to be alone.
Walk with him. William Blake writes “all is holy.”
That includes the book you are holding and the hand that holds it.

The plate Blake himself drew, lettered, and printed in the original edition of Songs of Innocence

In this recording from a 2011 benefit concert for the Wadsworth Atheneum accompanying the opening of her exhibition at the museum, Smith tells the story of the notebook in which Blake wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — a little black sketchbook that belonged to his brother Robert, whose death devastated William — and she sings his iconic poem “The Tyger,” as it appeared in Blake’s original manuscript from the small notebook held at the British Library:

Complement with Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces and the crucial difference between writing poetry and songwriting, then revisit Esperanza Spalding’s performance of Blake’s existential poem “The Fly” and the brilliant, underappreciated Alfred Kazin on Blake and the tragic genius of outsiderdom.

BP

William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Children’s Book of Moral Education

“Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason.”

William Blake Illustrates Pioneering Feminist and Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s Children’s Book of Moral Education

Four years before she ignited the dawn of feminism with her epoch-making 1792 book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the pioneering British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) set out to change the fabric of society at the loom: She decided to write a children’s book of allegorical stories inviting young readers to contemplate questions of moral philosophy. At the heart of her vision was an insistence on the value of girls’ education as a counterpoint and challenge to Rousseau’s seminal 1762 book Émile, or Treatise on Education, which focused on the education of boys and reflected the era’s dominant ethos that women are to be educated only in order to make desirable wives and good conversation companions for their husbands.

The result was Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (public library | free ebook), composed when Wollstonecraft was twenty-nine — six years before the birth of her own first child, Fanny, and nine years before that of her second, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley.

“Every Prospect Smiled” (William Blake Archive)

Two centuries before beloved Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White declaimed that “anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time” and that they are instead to be written up to, for they are “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth,” Wollstonecraft wrote with the conviction that children ought not be shielded from life’s most demanding and difficult questions — mortality, kindness and cruelty, the meaning of mercy, the eternal interplay of good and evil. She outlined her aim and her means in the preface:

Good habits, imperceptibly fixed, are far preferable to the precepts of reason… Reason, with difficulty, conquers settled habits, even when it is arrived at some degree of maturity: why then do we suffer children to be bound with fetters, which their half-formed faculties cannot break.

In writing the following work, I aim at perspicuity and simplicity of style; and try to avoid those unmeaning compliments, which slip from the tongue, but have not the least connexion with the affections that should warm the heart, and animate the conduct. By this false politeness, sincerity is sacrificed, and truth violated; and thus artificial manners are necessarily taught. For true politeness is a polish, not a varnish; and should rather be acquired by observation than admonition… The way to render instruction most useful cannot always be adopted; knowledge should be gradually imparted, and flow more from example than teaching: example directly addresses the senses, the first inlets to the heart; and the improvement of those instruments of the understanding is the object education should have constantly in view, and over which we have most power.

Three years after the publication of the book, just as Wollstonecraft was finalizing Vindication, her publisher began preparing a second edition of Original Stories from Real Life and commissioned William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) to illustrate it. Only a year earlier, Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Two songs in it — “The Little Boy Lost” and “The Little Boy Found” — were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.

William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft

Blake reworked his preliminary drawings for Original Stories, ten of which survive, into the etchings that appear on the six illustrated plates in the book.

“Look What a Fine Morning It Is” for Plate 1 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 1: “Look What a Fine Morning It Is” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“A Starving Woman with Two Children” (William Blake Archive)
“She Turned Her Eyes to Her Cruel Master” (William Blake Archive)
“How Delighted the Old Bird Will Be” (William Blake Archive)
“God Sent for Him” (William Blake Archive)
“The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” for Plate 2 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 2: “The Dog Strove to Attract His Attention” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Indeed We Are Very Happy” for Plate 3 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 3: “Indeed We Are Very Happy” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” for Plate 4 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 4: “The Ruined House: ‘Be Calm, My Child'” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
Plate 5: “Trying to Trace the Sound I Discovered” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” for Plate 6 (William Blake Archive)
Plate 6: “Economy and Self-Denial Are Necessary” (The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Six years later, Wollstonecraft died of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world. Influenced by her work and moved by the tragedy of her personal story, Blake commemorated her in an engraving:

“The Child Mary Shelley (at her Mother’s Death)”

Complement with Esperanza Spalding’s stunning soul-jazz performance of Blake’s poem “The Fly,” his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, and his most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — then revisit Maurice Sendak’s formative etchings for Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Mary Wollstonecraft on the courage of unwavering affection.

BP

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

BP

William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: A Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The 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.”

William Blake’s Most Beautiful Letter: A Searing Defense of the Imagination and the Creative Spirit

“The genius,” Schopenhauer wrote in his timeless distinction between genius and talent, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.” Unlike the person of talent, whose work simply exceeds in excellence the work of their contemporaries and is therefore easily appreciated by them, Schopenhauer argued that person of genius produces work which differs not in mere degree of excellence but in kind of vision. It is therefore often ridiculed or, worse yet, entirely ignored by the creator’s contemporaries, to be rediscovered and appreciated only by posterity.

Arguably no genius embodies this tragic tenet more perfectly than William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827), who lived amid ridicule and died in relative obscurity, then went on to inspire generations of artists. He was a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak and a kind of creative patron saint for Patti Smith. He produced stunning art for Milton’s Paradise Lost and labored over his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy until his dying day. Centuries later, his verses continue to quench an immutable existential thirst.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Blake’s genius sprang from his unusual spiritual disposition. Both drawn to and discomfited by religion, he chose instead to live in a world of abstract spirituality, amid a self-created cosmogony, agnostic and often unabashedly antagonistic to scripture. His was an irreverent reverence, intellectually daring and contemptuous of dogma yet animated by unflinching faith in the human spirit, in our capacity for self-transcendence, and in the ability to ameliorate the sorrowful finitude of our lives by contacting eternity through the supreme conduits of truth and beauty — truth and beauty that continue to radiate from his art. He may have died in poverty, but he lived enriched and electrified by the mirth of creativity.

Nowhere does Blake’s singular genius and orientation of spirit shine more brilliantly than in a letter he wrote to a Reverend John Trusler in the summer of 1799, included in The Portable William Blake (public library), edited by the great Alfred Kazin.

William Blake, "The Last Supper"
William Blake, “The Last Supper”

Trusler was a priest and an early self-help entrepreneur of sorts, who authored books with titles like Hogarth Moralized, A Sure Way to Lengthen Life with Vigor, and The Way to be Rich and Respectable. Practicing his own preachings, he made non-negligible sums from his clever idea to sell sermons printed to appear handwritten so as to relieve the corner-cutting devout of the drudgery of composition. After seeing Blake’s “The Last Supper” exhibited at the Royal Academy in May of 1799, Trusler decided to commission him for a series of moralistically themed artworks intended to illustrate Trusler’s writings on subjects such as malevolence, benevolence, pride, and humility.

But, as might be expected when a visionary is mistaken for a hand for hire, trouble arose — Blake had his own visions for the art, but Trusler had very specific, rather crude ideas informed by the era’s popular caricature aesthetic. He wrote to Blake with a litany of criticisms, condemning his approach as overly transcendent and whimsical, and accusing him of having an imagination that belongs to “the world of spirits” and unbefitting Trusler’s worldly intentions.

First and last pages of Blake's letter to Trusler, August 23, 1799. (Images: British Library)
First and last pages of Blake’s letter to Trusler, August 23, 1799. (Images: British Library)

On August 16, 1799, a clearly aggravated and artistically indignant middle-aged Blake fires back in a letter brimming with the curious coalition undergirding all of his art — vexation with the status quo, deep personal torment, and unassailable creative buoyancy. He writes to Trusler:

I find more & more that my style of designing is a species by itself, and in this which I send you have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led; if I were to act otherwise it would not fulfill the purpose for which alone I live, which is … to renew the lost art of the Greeks.

I attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolved to show an independence which I know will please an author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be. At any rate, my excuse must be: I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!

I know I begged of you to give me your ideas and promised to build on them; here I counted without my host. I now find my mistake.

In a sentiment that Tchaikovsky would echo exactly a century later in his lamentation about the paradox of commissioned work and creative freedom, Blake argues that what prohibited him from obeying Trusler’s demands was the impossibility — nay, the sacrilege — of disobeying the muse:

[I] cannot previously describe in words what I mean to design, for fear I should evaporate the spirit of my invention… And tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine, being of the same opinion with Milton when he says that the Muse visits his slumbers and awakes and governs his song when morn purples the East, and being also in the predicament of that prophet who says: “I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord, to speak good or bad.”

One of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Trusler was incensed and fired further criticism. Before replying to Trusler, Blake wryly confided in his dear friend and lifelong supporter George Cumberland, who had introduced Trusler to Blake’s work and had facilitated the commission: “I could not help smiling at the difference between the doctrines of Dr. Trusler and those of Christ,”

In what remains his greatest letter, Blake defends his vision to Trusler — but his words radiate a larger, more universal and eternal defense of the creative spirit against all the forces which continually try to corrupt it, contract it, and contain it within a suffocating smallness of purpose.

On August 23, 1799, a part-sincere, part-sardonic Blake addresses Trusler’s complaint that his art warrants explanation and is simply too imaginative:

I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual world, especially if I should have to answer for it… If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company… What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.

Asserting that Trusler’s eye has been “perverted by caricature prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do,” Blake makes a beautiful case for beauty (or ugliness) being in the eye of the beholder, implying that the art of living lies largely in training the eye to attend to what is beautiful and noble — an argument all the more urgent amid our present culture of rampant cynicism and a media ecosystem that traffics in outrage as its chief currency.

Blake writes:

Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.

[…]

You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.

There is no greater testament to the enchantment of the real world, Blake argues, than the imagination of children, who see the grand and eternal in the ordinary and who are, as E.B. White would argue three centuries later, “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.” Blake writes:

I am happy to find a great majority of fellow mortals who can elucidate my visions, and particularly they have been elucidated by children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my pictures than I even hoped. Neither youth nor childhood is folly or incapacity. Some children are fools and so are some old men. But there is a vast majority on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.

Another of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Complying with the era’s epistolary etiquette, Blake ends with a signature comically courteous in the contrasting context of his defiant letter:

I am, Revd. Sir, your very obedient servant,

WILLIAM BLAKE.

Couple the altogether indispensable Portable William Blake (public library) with Patti Smith’s loving homage to Blake, then complement this particular portion with artist Anne Truitt’s beautiful meditation on what sustains the creative spirit.

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