This course is an introduction to the poetry of William Blake – a poet, painter, engraver, mystic, visionary, and radical thinker who lived and worked in London at the end of the long eighteenth century. Considered by many of his contemporaries as insane and largely unrecognised during his lifetime, he is now considered to be one of the major figures of British Romanticism, serving as a major influence on later generations from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Beat Poets and counterculture of the 1950s and 60s. From early childhood, Blake spoke of having visions of alternate worlds. At four he claimed to have seen God put his head to the window, and at nine he argued that he had seen a tree filled with angels. As an adult he argued that ideal forms should be constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions, and that God is seen from within the self, not imposed from without. His poetry and engravings consistently express an attitude of rebellion towards oppressive structures of church and state, and his complex private mythology articulates a world in which the contraries of heaven and hell, good and evil, body and mind, are held together as a duality that enables forces of regeneration and change to be released, thus opening new worlds. For this reason, Blake believed that the repression of sexual energy by restrictive moral codes and oppressive laws of state and religion was in itself an evil. His complex private mythology articulates a world in which sexual energy (often represented by the realm of Hell and the figure of the Devil) is a source of revolution, liberation, and freedom, thus having the potential to overturn the morbid authoritarianism of the monarchy, the state, and the church. Over the course of the semester, students will examine a range of Blake’s shorter poems, and their engravings, in order to analyse the ways in which they envision alternate worlds of political equality, freedom and ethical openness. Students will be asked to interrogate the importance of contraries and the dialogic, the relationship between the visual and the verbal, and the use of polyvocality and hermeneutic openness in the figuration of Blake’s visionary worlds, paying particular attention to the ways in which the poems and engravings invite their readers to become active members of a new collective body in which what is, and what could be, exist in a productive relation.
A course reader will be made available on Moodle prior to the beginning of semester.