The Visionary City: William Blake’s London

By Kevan Manwaring © 2017

Another England there I saw,
Another London with its Tower.
Another Thames and other hills,
And another pleasant Surrey bower.

In April 1803 the visionary artist and poet William Blake left Felpham and returned to London. He wrote to his patron Thomas Butts that he was overjoyed to return to the city: ‘That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.’ For Blake, London was his dreaming place. As a youth he was said to freely wander the streets of his beloved city and ‘could easily escape to the surrounding countryside.’ And in one famous incident (related by his early biographer Gilchrist) the young Blake was startled to ‘see a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.’

There are many Londons. The visitor can choose which one they wish to slip into – whose skin, eyes, feet to experience it through. For me there is only one choice. The London of Blake, who lived and died within its purlieu. Born in Soho on 28th November 1757 and dying in a small room off the Strand (3 Fountain Court) 12th August 1827, these are the dates that bookend his life and even if you just chose those two you would find a way in. You could walk into Tate Britain on his birthday in late November, streets slick and dark as printers’ ink, and become part of The Blakean Congregation – a loose collective of artists, poets and academics – who gather to read his poetry every year in the Blake Gallery before decamping to a pub; or you could go to Bunhill Fields, the Dissenters’ graveyard, on his death-day in glorious August – a swoon of colour as sublime as one of Blake’s etchings – and join those who come to honour his memory. Birth in the darkness; death in the light.

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.

Blakean dualities epitomize his dialectical approach – fearful symmetries that arose from the mirror writing and reverse imagery of the engravers’ art as much as from the Manichean conflict he saw enacted on a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale: the great battle raging in his own mind, even as he wrote against the backdrop of revolution, the ‘French Terror’, America’s freshly-forged independence, and the ongoing emancipation of the oppressed. He strove to break his own mind-forg’d manacles while seeking to burst the fetters of humankind’s by the power of Los, his god of the Imagination. And it was through his remarkable vision that he finally shattered the chains of reality.

Imagination is the real and eternal world of which this vegetable universe is but a faint shadow.

Once Blake and his wife, Catherine, were visited by Butts, who was discomfited to discover the couple naked by their small summer house, reciting passages from Paradise Lost, re-enacting Milton’s prelapsarian mis-en-scène:

“Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve you know!”

This incident provided the grit in the oyster for an imagined visit to the Blake’s by Thomas Paine (of The Rights of Man), vibrantly dramatized in the 1989 play In Lambeth by Jack Shepherd. Here, innocence and experience met. It would seem that Paine embodied the latter, and yet Blake was well-acquainted with hardship, struggling with poverty and ill-health in his later years (heartbreakingly evoked in ‘Another Sun’, a poem Blake included in a letter to Butts, dated 22nd November 1802, which includes the line: ‘This Earth breeds not our happiness’). He witnessed it first-hand from his own doorstep – the daily grind of existence (the reality for the majority of Londoners scraping a living amid the temples of wealth), the Tyburn Gallows, the urchins in the gutters, the harlots on the street-corner, the high infant mortality and child labour:

What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all the man hath, his house, his wife, his children.

On summer evening in 1780 Blake found himself at the front of the mob that burned Newgate prison. Throughout June of that year riots erupted across London, incited by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon. Such images of violent destruction and the powderkeg of revolution lit in America and France that decade gave Blake powerful material for works such as Europe (1794) and America (1793).

Of course, he immortalized that vision of London in his eponymous poem,

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,/there the charter’d Thames does flow./And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

And yet Blake also saw the Eternal City transposed onto London. Even Blake’s most iconic and pastoral poem, ‘Jerusalem’, has urban imagery interlaced throughout it…

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

There is also something alchemical about this line, this imagery – it is only through the nigredo of blackening fire that the alchemical gold is created, through the dross, to the divine.

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Note that Blake exhorts us to build Jerusalem, not to grow it. This is a Londoner’s frame of reference. Except for three years in West Sussex, urbanite Blake spent his whole life within London’s aegis. Of course, Blake’s London was far more rural in places than it is now, as its evocative street-names and ‘villages’ suggest.

Although it can be addictive to track down every location in London associated with Blake (the Tate Britain website has a useful list and guided tours are available) it is can risk taking things too literally (several of the buildings where he lived or worked – and even streets – no longer exist), for you can find Blake’s London in any city park or by walking along the ‘chartered’ Thames. It is a way of seeing, a way of being. Pause a while amid the hustle and bustle of London. Open your senses and try to experience (actually, not digitally) what is before you.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.

Sometimes it is difficult to truly see what is before you, to truly hear – because we filter so much out. And yet, as the artist reminds us, ‘The eye altering, alters all’:

As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers. You certainly Mistake, when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination.

Blake’s London was one both grittily real and gloriously immanent – a holy city threatening to break through at any moment. All that it takes is an ability to see with both innocence and experience. To see the truth of the apparent senses and then the deeper truth, the mythic core of existence that lies like the bedrock beneath London visible – full of ghosts and dreams and gods. With Blakean perception ‘(strive) to seize the inmost form’. In the innovative printing method he devised which allowed him to print both text and image simultaneously (‘the infernal method’) the corrosive acid burnt away the plate unprotected by the brush-strokes of his wax ‘resist’, raising up his words and illuminations. Like Michelangelo’s ‘David’ within the block of marble, the Platonic form emerges. So too invisible London emerges when we allow ourselves time to behold its hidden glory. The setting sun burnishing the scalloped surface of the Thames into a copper shield. The dawn chorus breaking free from a gated park. The glass towers transforming the city into a sculpture of light. The great rivers of diversity that flow through its channels every day – a cry of life, defiant against the dark. A torrent of humanity, eddies, floods and waterfalls of movement. (‘…they like Thames waters flow’). It is Blake’s great city of imagination and self-annihilation, Golgonooza, formed by the bodies of its citizens:

the spiritual Four-fold London eternal
In immense labours & sorrows, ever building, ever falling

As in one of Blake’s Dantean illustrations it can be both heaven and hell. There are many layers, many levels. It is all too easy to feel bound to one circle – a never-ending tube commute. But the multiplicity of the city is forever paradigm shifting. Allow yourself to walk between worlds. Get off a stop early and explore. Lose yourself in its labyrinth and discover hidden treasures. Do not always be in a rush to get from A to B. This city of earthly delights yields its graces to those who spend time lingering amid its secret corners. Cultivate your flâneur and walk with Blake…

To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

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