The Madness of William Blake
Notes on the life of a creative mind
The lunatic, the lover and the poet… are of imagination all compact And as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poets pen turns them to shapes. Shakespeare
Creativity and eccentricity have a long and puzzling relationship. The image of the restless artist or philosopher flying too close to the sun, haunted by their own brilliance is a common theme in the lives of exceptional individuals. Indeed, there is something of fascination in the notion that unusual talent or creativity may render individuals more susceptible to bizarre behavior or even insanity. Within the psychological archives of this mysterious association lies the life and work of William Blake. Blake is perhaps the English poster child of creative deviance; an enigma whose life has stood defiantly against the trends artistic or psychiatric classification.
As a psychologist and autism consultant, I often find myself in a shared world with individuals who hold an unusual and very distinct conversation with life. Blake’s story often comes to mind as I observe how my client’s divergent ideas and stories meander alongside the more mundane and practical conversations of therapy. His biography and artistic works have often served to inspire my reflections on autistic individuals whose thinking and perceptual style take them toward sometimes isolative ways of looking at the world around them. In autism, the murky parameters of abnormal and normal are persistent themes. Even in this bold era of neuroscience with its heralded pictured brain, definitive biological markers between what is considered normal verses pathological remain elusive. It is here in my frequent encounters with labels such as “gifted” and “eccentric” that the memories of my early studies of Blake begin to surface. He was a man at once seized and challenged by the forces of his own inner creativity and passion. Whereas parts of his writing and prose are readily coherent and profound, other poetic discourses were riddle with symbolism and remain for many readers inaccessible. Such apparent contradictions were all expressions of the ceaseless cauldron of Blake’s nature and it was perhaps inevitable that he would secure only a fragile and at times contemptuous relationship with the cultural world that surrounded him.
In his lifetime, Blake’s ideas stood in direct contrast to the emerging “Age of Reason” and the popular notion of progress and scientific discovery. He was in so many ways, a man at odds with his times. In Blake’s London we find evidence of the old adage that convention is rarely kind to exception. During his life, his work as an artist and poet was acknowledged by a select few and ignored or openly rebuked by many others. There were some who regarded his work as simple minded while others believed his ideas and art to be the work of a madman. After his death in 1827, it was widely rumored in and round London that he had met his end while a resident in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital), the notorious insane asylum on the south east side of the Thames.
Blake was born without pedigree or pomp in the heart of London’s Soho district in 1757. A tailor’s son, he went forth to forge a bold and brilliant life in poetry and art. Like many important artists, Blake’s work was truly his life. Whether philosophy, painting, poetry or engraving, he rose from his early humble studies of the classics to create a body of work that was unmistakably his own. His passionate character wandered through London from Lambeth to the Strand and on to the fields and meadows that were then plentiful south of the Thames. This “unchartered” London was still in its natural pastoral beauty and this is where the young Blake first experienced a communion with the earth. With the exception of a brief stay in Sussex, Blake remained in London his entire life.
Angels in Peckham
The creative work arises from the unconscious depth…the work in progress becomes the poets fate and determines his psychological development. Carl Jung
As I examined the various accounts of Blake’s childhood, it is apparent that Mr. and Mrs. Blake soon became aware that their son was a particularly unique child. One of Blake’s most important early biographers, Alexander Gilchrist, noted that the Blake’s home-schooled William due to his sensitive and overtly imaginative nature. The notion that Blake evidenced unusual sensitivity provides an early glimpse into temperament, possibly resembling the familiar psychological profile of “the sensitive child”. I was to find corroborative evidence for this in adulthood descriptions of his social behavior. He was by all accounts an extremely sensitive adult, often reacting harshly to criticism of any kind.
Blake’s proclivity to imagination was later to flower into a defining feature of his childhood. A further clue to his penchant for vivid imagination can be extracted from various childhood descriptions of his explorations of London and the surrounding nature. He loved to be out and about in the universe beyond his parent’s small Soho garden. The world was an apparent object of discovery; his sketchbook a canvas of his ceaseless inspiration.
Religion played a central role in Blake’s family home. His parents were Dissenters; a term that was used widely in the 17th 18th century to describe Christians who practiced their faith outside the established Church of England. We know that the Blake’s parents were extremely devout and Blake’s Christian faith and biblical studies remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
As with so many exceptionally creative minds, Blake’s imaginations and experiences went beyond the expected, beyond the confines of any typical artist. It was at the age of 12 that we see the first evidence of visions. Blake spoke to his alarmed parents of angels he saw “quite clearly in trees” around Peckham Rye, a park near the Blake’s home in Soho. The facility to see visions such as angels, demons and all things between was to last his entire life. There is clearly a biblical theme in much of Blake’s “witnessing” and like his later admirer W.B Yeats, he was convinced that his inner world, “the universe of imagination” was as real as the physical reality that surrounded him. For Blake, it was as if both dimensions were two sides of a divine poem to be explored and ultimately worshipped, not dissected.
His drawing skills were to evolve as a favored form of expression. At some point (my best estimate is around the age of 10) his father purchased painting tools and ultimately directed the eager student toward a career as an engraver. Blake was slowly learning a means to give his inner sight outward form.
Despite times of political and religious strife in England, the biographies concur in describing an essentially happy childhood, lived within a caring family. The visions did not appear to seriously distract or worry the young Blake; he seemed to take them in his stride. Here I am struck by Blake’s self assuredness, already apparent in his childhood. I could not find the any scratch of evidence that pointed toward the paranormal experiences disrupting his life. I am left with the lasting impression that the young Blake already possessed a form of interiority and courage that was to ultimately fuel a lifelong sense of purpose.
As an adolescent, Blake served as an engravers apprentice and was employed at the esteemed engraving office of Basire and Co. in Westminster. It is here that we also witness another indication of his emotional temperament. Gilchrist notes that the young Blake needed shielding from the antics of the other young apprentices in the office. The apprenticeship was Blake’s first independent encounter with the social world. Perhaps the young Blake was socially awkward or even gullible? Yet no other overt idiosyncrasies are noted during these early apprenticeship years, rendering the argument for serious childhood or adolescent psychological vulnerability highly doubtful. Blake applied himself dutifully to his artistic assignments in various churches and buildings around London.
As we have already seen, his uncanny intuitive imagination was not restricted to his writing and art. It would continue to inhabit his daily interactions with the world, sometimes leading to strangely paranormal perceptions. There is an interesting account from these years that particularly captured my attention. While interviewing for potential apprentice positions with his father, he met William W. Ryland, owner of one of London’s largest and most distinguished engraving establishments. However, the young Blake did not take to this man’s persona whatsoever, exclaiming to his father afterwards “father, the man’s face looks like he is to be hanged!” certainly an unusual statement from the 14 year old. Some 12 years later, the once esteemed Ryland was exposed for fraud against the East India Company and executed by the hangman’s noose at Tyburn.
In sum, in the childhood and adolescent life of Blake we see evidence of a sensitive, imaginative and artistically gifted person. As for the visions, it would appear that Blake learned to keep them to himself. If he shared them, it was with his mother and later his wife and through his art. Blake’s personality emerged into what Carl Jung might describe as an introverted intuitive type. The intuitive introvert possesses a vast subjective world of images with the proclivity to create and project possibilities into the world beyond the immediate senses. This highly attuned trait of Blake’s reaches epic intensity. Here we find Jung’s collective unconscious opening in forms and symbols that are accessible to only those willing to devote in depth study. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats was one such man. He concluded that even Blake’s more esoteric and remote works were embodied in a firm symbolic language shared by all inspired poets.
The issue of Blake’s visions remains a fascinating and also challenging subject. One wonders how a clinical psychological expert today might react to such a presentation. We could imagine Blake’s nervous mother, referred by a school professional or pediatrician, sitting with her introverted and studious son in the expert’s waiting room. She likely already fears some form of early onset childhood malady or psychosis. Although I would like to think that a psychologist, sensing a highly intuitive child, might tread cautiously before classifying and diagnosing. I fear it is more likely that William’s care would be directed towards a medication trial in an attempt to remove his aberrant visual experiences, which would be classified as hallucinations. Although purely speculative, I find this nonetheless an unsettling thought. It is perhaps an over simplification to suggest that society is increasingly pathologizing childhood with ever expanding categories of mental illnesses. However, such cautionary perspectives are perhaps more relevant today than ever.
Artist and Philosopher
In the years to follow, Blake married his one great love, Catherine Boucher. It is mentioned in several biographies that when they first met she expressed her pity for Blake in response to his comments on a situation of apparent woe. This so moved Blake that he is reported to have exclaimed “You pity me? Then I love you”. The union was made and they married in 1782.
Now married, he continued to develop his own engraving style and began the production of beautifully illustrated books in his printing shop in the borough of Lambeth. Blake was to remain his own lord and master, working from assignment to assignment. With Catherine as his assistant, his engravings, drawings and poetic books were self-published “Limited Editions” , eventually gaining recognition as creative masterpieces by so many.
Blake’s social behavior seemed to show a mercurial quality, vacillating between introverted sensitivity, congeniality and occasions of outspoken irritability. Eccentric is a fair description of his outward persona as an adult. He was intellectually astute and held passionately to philosophical principles which could result in occasional “rants”. Such direct and often awkward outbursts made him few friends in the image conscious art world of London. It is perhaps predictable that a man such as Blake would have had an honest disregard for the conventions of his day. He remained largely isolated with his wife in the print shop and his few admirers and patrons were only a pale shelter from the critics. He notes poignantly in a letter in 1803
Oh why was I born with a different face? Why was I not born like the rest of my face When I look each one starts! when I speak, I offend Then I am passive and silenbt and lose every friend
The acquisition of patrons and benefactors became increasingly difficult and this impacted the Blake’s financial security. Yet Blake’s artistic output continued as if unaffected by circumstance or poverty. His powerful images and writings revealed his decidedly unique inner world, where depictions of mythic creatures and biblical figures illuminate esoteric prose. His graphic art, although not abstract, showed no striving for realism, which he openly rebuked as “empty”.
The general themes of Blake’s writings were varied, ranging from complex works on his mythological ideas surrounding the human soul to more accessible verse depicting everyday impressions of beauty and life. The poetic inner reality of imagination was to become the central axis of his philosophy of life. In this context, his visions can be seen as a graphic representation of what he came to see as the soul behind nature, lying beyond the reach of intellect. It is interesting that several biographers also make a point of describing Blake was as “a Londoner”. Such an expression is usually is taken to reflect authenticity and shared common roots. The typical Londoner is characterized by a jovial and matter of fact style of life, never haughty. This resonates with the “everyman” sense of compassion that permeates his prose and philosophy. He would not compromise his inner vision for England nor his conviction that something essentially human was being lost under the banner of progress. In Blake’s view this “something” was relevant to each individual soul and the collective well-being. This was the inner vision of wisdom, the spirit of his “Ancient of Days”. With such convictions he wrote poems which emanated concern for the new “age of reason”; exposing its ominous shadow.
I wandered thro’ each charter’d street Near where the charter’d Thames does flow And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man In every infants cry of fear In every voice; in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
Blake saw England as losing its true and essential energy, trading its pastoral soul and natural beauty for the idea of material progress. He was to become the most outspoken artist of his time against the trend of industrialization. For Blake, the factories and mills of industrial England were ominous reminders of an increasing blindness to the faculty of inner imagination and beauty.
Among these dark satanic hills….. Bring me my bow of burning gold Bring me my arrows of desire
Blake did not reject rationalism or progress per se, but for him the situation was becoming gravely out of balance. Materialism was emerging quickly as the only valued commodity in the human discourse with nature. In contrast, Blake’s worldview called for a conversation between individual, spirit (God) and nature that was above all enveloped in personal meaning, a subjective felt sense, not mere quantity and function.
Blake’s visions and paranormal perceptions continued on throughout his life, its forms exuding from his seemingly endless imagination. There is one beautiful account of Blake attending the side of his dying younger brother, Robert. As his beloved Robert’s breath ceased, Blake described how he witnessed Robert’s joyful spirit leave his body, floating up through and beyond the confines of the physical room. Some thirteen years later Blake was to write “With his spirit I converse daily and hourly”. His most eloquent biographer of recent decades, Peter Ackroyd, notes poignantly in relation to this comment “this is highly significant to me; the suggestion that to contemplate the dead is also to hold communion with them”. For Blake such a communion was absolutely real. He inhabited this spiritual world which was a continual source for such encounters.
So what are we to make of Blake’s psychological health? Did his unique characteristics overwhelm reason? It is perhaps the honest inheritance of an exceptional mind to find itself within a world where inner life shares only a tenuous connection to the collective reality of culture. This is I feel is the most important clue to the “strangeness” that often characterizes the social behavior of this select group. It appears that the intensity and depth of artistic vocation quite naturally sets such individuals apart, not by choice but nature. Blake was never admitted to an asylum, nor is there any documentation or evidence that this was ever discussed. Ironically, Blake led a relatively normal, albeit introverted existence. He died quietly in 1827 at his home on Fountain Court in the loving arms of his wife of 45 years. His housemaid is noted to have exclaimed at his bedside: “an angel has left us”; hardly the epitaph of a deranged man.
During my studies of various biographies and witnessed accounts, I have been left with the impression that the recognition, kindness and charity he intermittently received from benefactors was one saving grace in his life. These select few seemed to overlook his oddities and recognized his gift and fundamentally benevolent nature. Most crucially however, it was Catherine’s continual selfless kindness that protected Blake from darker despair. She was the undeniable stalwart in his troubled conversation with a social world that could not understand his art or his behavior. As mentioned, one of the most striking features of Blake’s personality was his conviction to his beliefs and ideas. He was often uncompromising and to others this appeared primitive and even “dimwitted”. Catherine was his shy ambassador, encouraging him in the despondency that followed the many rejections at the hands of art dealers and would-be patrons. One can also imagine her calming his fearful tension in nights when the visions were intense, even threatening his very identity. Living in such an extreme intuitive world, Blake could have easily lost his bearings and mental coherence, falling into internal psychological chaos, isolation and eventually madness. Yet he did not. Instead, he suffered the slings and arrows of his fortune with Catherine at his side through thick and thin. This devotion and loyalty was more fully revealed to me when I stumbled upon the following extract from an original copy of Alfred Story’s biography from 1893; a book that I had here to fore neglected because of its antique frailty. It was there that I found a witnessed account that brought her humble dedication to light: “She would get up in nights when his inspirations were fierce….and threatened to tear him asunder….so terrible a task did this seem to be, that she had to sit motionless and silent, only to stay with him mentally, without moving hand or foot: this for hours, night after night.”. This is a poignant illustration of the fundamental nature of human caring. As so many of us have experienced when aiding the suffering, silent presence is the most profound gift we can offer one and other. We are called to remember that Job’s friends had much advice to offer him in his hour of need, but all their words were to no avail. Catherine’s silent, loving presence and the kind acts of those few patrons remind us of the importance of a “caring culture”.
The intensity and single-mindedness that can accompany exceptional individuals often betrays a deeper vulnerability and fear towards the social world. From my experiences in the world of autism and psychotherapy, I am now more than ever convinced of the basic role of empathy and acceptance as a foundation for treatment. No exceptional gift or savant talent can distract from this fundamental need. Blake was able to find a pocket of humanity in Catherine’s presence, someone who would listen, a presence that was to “hold” him in the world as his own genius carried forth its mission. Perhaps such extreme circumstances reveal the truth of the adage that the longing in every human heart is that we are loved for ourselves.
This I believe is the hidden story in Blake’s life. It is my belief that without Catherine’s presence, Blake would not have survived, physically or mentally. Her selfless love nurtured him, just as his Blake’s parents love had done so many years before. Like Catherine they shown an unrelenting faith in their son. Theirs was a Christian faith rooted in the conviction that William was something God was doing in the world. The prodigy provides glimpses of a world beyond what is and what can be readily understood or spoken. This gift can be a burden that sets them painfully apart. Had Kierkegaard, Pascal and Nietzsche had such access to human caring, perhaps they would have avoided their painful isolation.
Had society attempted to psychiatrically “cure” Blake, would we have lost many of his profound contributions and dulled his genius to distance? It is perhaps a familiar warning regarding culture and individuality: removing deeper passions and idiosyncrasies, especially in youth, requires very careful discernment on behalf of the adult world. Yet, we cannot ignore the broader, spiritual and psychological aspects of suffering. Stories such as Blake’s awaken us to the recognition of the personal mystery in each of us and at the same time, our shared humanity.
We know that minds great or otherwise do not actually think alike. Each one of us, exceptional or not, is authoring a path between the dynamic forces of inheritance and circumstance. Yet we all stand to benefit from being surrounded by a broad social vocabulary to facilitate our own “grand conversation”. What I continue to glean from Blake’s life can be summarized in two basic ideas. Firstly, I have learned an appreciation for the shear scope of human individuality and the importance of avoiding overly narrow margins or expectations, especially during the formative years of childhood. Secondly, I have become keenly aware of the inherent fragility that often accompanies those who, for whatever the reason, struggle to adjust to what society asks of them. In exceptional individuals, such as Blake, recognition and awe at their talents should not overshadow their need for constructive support and guidance in the realities of everyday life. In my work I recall several instances where a young person’s impressive “Savant” skill seemed to distract too much from the importance of learning daily routines and responsibilities. Blake was in many ways fortunate. The faith and openness demonstrated by his parents toward his unusual early traits, followed by their stewardship, most evident in his days as an apprentice, echo a healthy balance. I am sure their path in raising such a gifted child was nonetheless, not an easy one.
The author Hermann Hesse was particularly adept at capturing the tensions inherent in the artistic journey. In several novels, he describes introverted and alienated heroes that are calmed by the intercession of empathic and kindred Samaritans. In his largely autobiographical “Steppenwolf” he wrote what I feel is perhaps a fitting epitaph for Blake, Van Gogh and so many others.
“Let the little way to death be as it might- the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It came of high descent, and turned, not on trifles, but on the stars”