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Burning Bright

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Blake illustration
Blake illustration

Art and science, and sometimes art and politics, mirror each other in times of rapid change. Robert Hughes made that case in his history of modern art – noting it moved from straight representation to pointillism, cubism, and abstraction as science checked off its discoveries of the 20th Century, such as X-rays and the structure of the atom.

A similar reflection can be seen in the poetry of William Blake, who lived in England in the late 1700s at the time of the American and French revolutions.  Blake’s rejection of standard religious views of the era and his freethinking writings caused him to be considered odd, even crazy, in his lifetime – but gained him a wide-ranging posthumous fan base including such luminaries as Irish poet W.B. Yeats, scientist/humanist Jacob Bronowski,  punk rocker Patti Smith and U.S. poet Allen Ginsberg.

 “This was a man who had visions as a child, who was ridiculed and even beaten for having these visions,” Patti Smith told Rolling Stone writer David Fricke in May, 2004. “But he maintained those visions his whole life. Wherever they came from, whether he animated them from within or they were from God, William Blake held on to his vision. He never got a break in his life. His work never sold. He lived in poverty. When he spoke out, he nearly lost his life. He could have been hanged for insurrection,” Smith said.

“What I learned from William Blake is, don’t give up.”

Blake, perhaps best-known for two of his poems (“Tiger, Tiger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night …” and “To see a world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour … ”) was trained as an artist and illustrated his books with amazing engravings, which his wife would hand-color.

What’s that got to do with the price of a Kenmore washing machine?

In addition to Yeats, Smith and thousands upon thousands of poetry lovers, Blake had another important fan: Lessing Rosenwald, the scion of a Sears, Roebuck & Co. founding family.

Several original works written and illustrated by William Blake are part of the vast collection of rare books given to the Library of Congress in 1979 by Rosenwald.  You can see the digitized Blake books here, and other rare volumes in the Rosenwald collection, which includes the Library’s famous Giant Bible of Mainz, here.

Speaking of the Library of Congress and poetry, Jill McDonough and Atsuro Riley — two poets who are getting more recognition in their own lifetimes than Blake did, as winners of the Library’s Witter Bynner Fellowships for 2010 – will read from their own work Thursday evening, Feb. 18 at 6:45 p.m. in the Mumford Room, 6th floor of the Madison Building at 101 Independence Ave. S.E. in Washington, D.C. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, who selected them for the honor, will introduce them. The event is free of charge and open to the public; no tickets are required.

 The Blake illustration above is from “For Children: The Gates of Paradise,” published in 1793.

Comments (6)

  1. Blake definitely sounds like an inspiration and that he was far beyond his years in terms of creativity.

  2. The first poem mentioned was very much part of our syllabus in school and William Blake is very much a familiar name. However , was very surprised to read about his character

  3. Rattling fantastic visual appeal on this internet site, I’d rate it 10 10.

  4. Wonderful article about Blake. Without adoubt he was way ahead of his time in all his writings and artistic works. I love the detail of the article. I have found some new information I will share in my class.

  5. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates. by Minnie17b

  6. Yes, the Library has a Twitter feed and you can sign up for it right on this page — look at the top of the page, to the left, there’s a link.

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