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Prophet and Visionary

Blake’s Swirling Lovers from Dante’s Inferno

I have always loved the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827), particularly “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” But now I am increasingly becoming interested in his art, which exhibit the seemingly contradictory qualities of naiveté and authoritativeness. The scene above is from Canto V of the Inferno, in Robert Pinsky’s translation:

And cursing the power of Heaven. I learned
     They suffer here who sinned in carnal things—
     Their reason mastered by desire, suborned.
 As winter starlings riding on their wings
     Form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer
     Foundering in the wind’s rough buffetings

The Complaint of Job

In the above drawing, we see Job at the left, with his taunting friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar on the right. Like much of Blake’s art, the image is almost deceptively simple. Note the positioning of the fingers on his right hand indicating Job’s increasing agitation. The “friends” appear smug and serious, assuming identical positions.

“The Ancient of Days”

Only Blake had the chutzpah to show God the Father intent in the act of creation. This is my favorite of the images shown here. You can see the force emanating from the Deity’s fingertips as dark clouds encircle him.

According to London’s Tate Gallery:

A committed Christian who was hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Michael Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”, and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.

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