Monday, May 22, 2023
Today on the Christian History Almanac podcast, we head to the mailbag to answer a question about William Blake.
It is the 22nd of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Happy Monday! To you, maybe listening on a Monday, but me, definitely not saying this on a Monday- it’s the magic of podcasts.
Ok- so, on the Weekend Edition, I compared Bono to William Blake- I think it’s a pretty good comparison- an artist positively bursting at the seams with creativity and a sense of the divine and love of Jesus even if some might not care for their work and if some might question their orthodoxy. And I remembered that a listener had asked me a question about him- so I searched for it. And it was Julie who had written to me before (actually about my old show- in that email, she told me she was near Cincinnati). And give me the queen city any day of the week over the other Metropolae in the middle of the country. You can have Chicago- give me the city named for the Roman statesman who gave himself to the state in a time of trouble and then relinquished his power. Give me chili served on top of spaghetti. Friends, if you aren’t making your chili slightly soupier and then on spaghetti with grated cheese and diced onion, are you purposely trying to not live your best life?
So- She asked about William Blake and the poem Jerusalem in particular. So, let’s talk about the enigmatic poet, artist, and printer who was mostly ignored in his own life only to find posthumous fame.
He was born in London in 1757- he would watched the American and French revolutions from afar and then Napoleon’s spree across the European continent and threats against the British Isles.
His mother, Catherine, was a Moravian and fond of the methodists. Her first husband died, and she married James Blake- a London Haberdasher (that’s a guy dealing in men's fashion). William was schooled at home and then sent to art school, although he had to drop out because his parents couldn’t afford it. He would ultimately be apprenticed to an engraver. Blake lived with that family for seven years and became quite adept at all things engraving.
He would become an independent engraver and made prints for copies of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Book of Job (as part of a planned larger project on the Bible), and of Dante.
He was married in 1782 to Catherine Boucher- an illiterate Londoner and descendant of Huguenot immigrants. He was married in the Anglican Church, the same church in which he was baptized and buried.
From a young age, he claimed to have visions of God, the patriarchs, prophets, and saints. When his younger brother died, it shook him, he claimed to have a vision from this brother who told him to try painting on copper in a substance that could withstand an acid bath- this “illuminated printing” would be his calling card. His paintings would often accompany his poetry, and he would handprint only enough to sell, making his prints a rarity for collectors (especially since he was not well regarded in his day).
He did have an exhibition in his life at the Royal Academy of Arts, where he studied for a time. It was later in the 19th century, after his death, that he was picked up by the punk rock Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who shared Blake’s contempt for much of what was then modern art. He himself also opposed much of what was then modern theology- writing:
The Vision of Christ that thou dost See
Is my Visions Greatest Enemy
Both read the Bible day & night
But thou readst black where I read White.
He would come to fame after his death with notices and articles by the likes of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Thomas Merton. In the 1960s, he was hailed by the likes of beat poet Alan Ginsberg and taken up by the 60s and 70s Western counter culture.
But perhaps it is his poem “Jerusalem” for which he is most famous- or at least, part of it- it’s a long 4,000 word plus free verse poem serving as a “corrective” to Milton’s Paradise Lost. But it is the section- known by the first verse of its section, “And did those feet in ancient time” that would become the unofficial national anthem of Great Britain. Ironically, he was critical of the crown (once taken up on charges of treason for cursing the crown at the word of a French invasion). We will close the show with a reading of that poem- it is essentially criticizing England, claiming that only when it reunites with Jerusalem, in a spiritual sense, will it reach its potential. It was not a call for theocracy- Blake was too much a mystic for anything that concrete.
Thanks for the question Julie, you can send me your questions at email@example.com
The last word for today comes from Blake- from his Jerusalem:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 22nd of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man in Wisconsin where they make their chili with elbow macaroni and saltine crackers- meh- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who thinks there might not be a cooler job title than “haberdasher”- I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.
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