William Blake: a prophet for our time

by
07 September 2018

Lucy Winkett reflects on the resonances of William Blake’s distinctive voice in the present day

PA

Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson speaks at the unveiling of Blake’s gravestone

Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson speaks at the unveiling of Blake’s gravestone

I CANNOT think of many writers whose spirit, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, would inspire passion from such an eclectic mix as heavy-metal singers, priests, stand-up comics, and punk poets. But, last month, the large crowd at the unveiling of the new stone at the precise location of the grave of William Blake on the 191st anniversary of his death heard powerful contributions from all these figures.

Each in turn stood on a park bench, filled their lungs with dampening central London air, and bellowed their unamplified contributions over the grave of one of the sharpest and most penetrating voices to emerge from the bustle, commerce, and inequality of 18th-century London.

Bruce Dickinson had finished a tour with Iron Maiden only the night before. Looking remarkably calm after what had presumably been a night of ear-splitting guitar, bass, and drums in front of a shrieking — and no doubt adoring — audience, he paid tribute to a poet and artist who had inspired and provoked him all his life; and whose colossal imagination and uncompromising spirit were, he said, needed more than ever in contemporary society.

 

FOR those of us who were Church of England priests, it was a nerve-racking experience speaking at the graveside of such a powerful Christian voice who became, and remained, enraged by the establishment clergy of his own day. Although Blake was baptised in 1757 at St James’s, Piccadilly, his subsequent critique of the Church was so fierce, his interpretation of scripture was so singular, and his fury against organised religion was so potent that some would say that hollowed out his Christian faith, rendering it almost unrecognisable to an orthodox mind.

But, as the priest and poet Malcolm Guite said at the graveside (Poet’s Corner, 24 August), Blake’s faith was in the Jesus whom he believed the Church had abandoned. In that sense, he was — and still is — an internal rather than external critic of the way in which the Christian faith is practised by its adherents; and so, for those who have ears to hear, his is a prophetic rather than destructive force within the Christian tradition.

PAThe Revd Malcolm Guite (left) and the comedian Stephen Micalef at the graveside

 

DRAWN in scripture to Job, Revelation, and the figure of Enoch, Blake had theological preoccupations that have  powerful resonance and relevance in today’s Church and society, rooted as they are in the themes of theodicy, apocalypse, and prophecy.

His highly controversial (even today) nomenclature for God — “Nobodaddy” — of whom he demands “Why art thou silent and invisible?” (The Complete Poems, Penguin, 2004) finds echoes not only in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, but in the cries of every post-Auschwitz theologian. And Blake’s insistence, at the end of his piece There Is No Natural Religion, that God “becomes as we are, that we may be as he is”, is surely an incarnational reflection, as much as his earlier observation that “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God” (op. cit.) is mystical. Each can find their place within thoughtful Christian writing.

 

BLAKE’s deep and enduring concern for child labourers, in his constant references to the misery experienced by chimney sweeps, is set against his perception that the Church authorities ignored this suffering, while God’s commitment is to suffer with humanity: “he who smiles on all . . . doth sit beside us and moan.”

For Blake, holding together what he called “contraries” was important — even fiercely and protectively held contrary experiences, and opposite views. I heard echoes of a Blakean insistence that “without contraries there is no progression” in a recent study by the University of York’s Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture. In a three-year project with four sample cathedrals, one of the principles in the life of a contemporary cathedral on which they reflected was “the potency of adjacency”.

I reflected that, perhaps, “the potency of adjacency” is an interesting idea for today’s Church, not just today’s cathedrals, and it has something in its intensity which would be recognisable to Blake.

In a society that seems more furiously divided than ever, and after a 20th century full of big ideas and world wars, we have become suspicious of over-arching narratives, or programmes that seem to make things too neat. We learned, in the course of that 20th century, that theories of everything were as toxic as they were unifying; and that true and lasting unity is not grounded in uniformity.

And so, if a Church can not only tolerate but commit to different strands of spiritual and artistic expression, historical interpretation, and contemporary political reflection, then its vocation is holistic, innovative, and faithful, and will speak — into a society suspicious of religion — of a God who, in Christ, is worshipped as the God who carries our questions and is big enough for all our uncertainties.

 

BLAKE is difficult. His allusions are complicated, his ideas are contradictory, his vocabulary is confronting, but at the centre of what he tries to say is a bracing attempt at truth-telling which can be inspiring and energising for contemporary Christians.

PAWilliam Blake’s new gravestone

His assertion that “Every thing that lives is holy” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 27, Erdman’s edition, page 45) challenges any dualism, or separation of sacred and secular, in which we might indulge. But, for me, the strand of Blake’s thought which is perhaps the most evocative is his insistence on human imagination as our gift and our responsibility in considering all things material and spiritual. Open-heartedness and open-mindedness seem to be scarce on shouty Twitter and in the blogosphere, where outrage and attention-seeking can combine to toxic effect.

And so, in my more belligerent moments — and especially when I’m tempted to communicate online — I try to hear the warning note sounded in Blake’s brilliant imagery: “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind”; and, in his haunting poem “London”, his urging the closed-minded to free themselves and others from their own “mind-forg’d manacles”.

Blake’s opinions were certainly attention-catching, and he could never be accused of blandness, but he was buried in an unmarked grave, unappreciated in his lifetime, his voice largely unheard. Now he has a gravestone, and, I would suggest, a distinctively Christian voice for our time.
 

The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in London.

Forthcoming Events

2 October 2018
Green Health Live Conference
Explore the links between health, gardening and the environment at this one-day conference at Lambeth Palace. Find out more.

18 October 2018
Church Times Live at CRE 2018
Our panels discuss three key issues: the environment, music and worship, and the church and young people. Find out more.

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)