Can the Work of William Blake Be Described As 'Romantic'?
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Can the Work of William Blake Be Described As 'Romantic'?

No coherent style, as with other artistic movements, connects those whom we now regard as Romantic. Since their work so often involves the rendering of visionary and imaginative elements from their personal worlds, the subject matter is, by nature, individual and unique to each of them. Yet inasmuch as our definition of 'Romantic' exists on this basis, I believe we can safely conclude that Lambeth's greatest prophet was indeed one of them.

The problem with assessing the degree to which the work of William Blake can be considered 'Romantic' is that the term is so difficult to define, its style and subject matter so diverse, that it could be extended to virtually any artist who valued the expression of his own inner world over the pragmatic ideals of more conventional contemporaries. No coherent style, as with other artistic movements, connects those whom we now regard as Romantic. Since their work so often involves the rendering of visionary and imaginative elements from their personal worlds, the subject matter is, by nature, individual and unique to each of them. Yet inasmuch as our definition of 'Romantic' exists on this basis, I believe we can safely conclude that Lambeth's greatest prophet was indeed one of them.

The critics A.W. and F. Schlegel devised the term to describe those who 'believed the modern world to be spiritually incompatible with that of antiquity'.1 Classical art emphasised formal values, while Romantic art was concerned with content and meaning. Forms are not rendered according to the stylistic conventions that directed the classical artists in their precise execution of works. Here, just as Friedrich urged artists to 'close the bodily eye', they emerge from the artist's imagination with the purpose of symbolising something from within himself.  This was the view held by the Schlegels, who believed Romantic art arose from the afflatus provided by Christianity, while the classical was to be associated with the pagan 'physically orientated art of antiquity'.2

Blake agreed with this, proclaiming that 'Grecian art is mathematical form, Gothic art is living form'3, and shared their concept of art as religious experience - 'Jesus and his Apostles and Disciples were all artists'4.

He, perhaps more than any other artist of his time, advocated the use of the imagination, believing it to be the greatest emancipator of the human spirit. Central to his art were a visionary awareness and a spirituality that led him to depart from the emulation of classical forms (in which he had been trained at the Royal Academy schools) and from landscape and life drawing, seeing copying nature as deadening to the imagination. Instead he directed his gaze inward and set himself the task of making visible the microcosms of his psyche.

This departure was common among the Romantics:

Tired of the eternal efforts to fight our way through raw matter, we chose another way and sought to embrace the infinite. We went inside ourselves and created a new world.5

But Blake took this retreat from physical reality even further. He believed humanity was trapped in the material universe; the infinite was repressed by matter and confined to transient mortality. This belief accords with his own, self-created mythology, in which a being he called Urizen was the creator. The Ancient of Days (1794) presents Urizen as a cruel and oppressive power, existing beyond all human understanding - this represented by the black clouds which enclose the figure in a void-like, spiritual space, separate from the material world. His representing the creator as an evil being clearly illustrates his view of the material universe as cruel.6

Another example is Elohim creating Adam (1795). Here the creator, called by his first Biblical name, is shown in horrifying, supernatural terms, lunging over Adam like a vampire, a parasitic hand clasped to his forehead. The same black clouds loom above. The serpent is already coiled around Adam's leg. The creator is cruelly forcing Adam from the 'infinite', spiritual plane into the 'raw matter' of this world.

The pair of dividers held by Urizen call to mind Blake's figure of Newton (1795), who, in a similar pose, sits beneath the sea, obsessed by his diagram and trying to measure infinity with this same implement. In Nebuchadnezzar the mad king, in both behaviour and physiognomy is reverting to a primitive, animal state. Both these designs show figures 'grown mad with unbelief '7, an insanity arising from their lack of spirituality and imagination. Both are leaving humanity behind: Newton thinks he has made God superfluous, and that he himself can replace Him; Nebuchadnezzar is taking the opposite route, forsaking his humanity in favour of the bestial.

These works show that he believed spirituality and imagination were solely human virtues, and constitute our link to the infinite - something of a maxim of the Romanticism, which may be observed in Friedrich's imaginative contortion of nature into a profound spiritual symbolism.

Characteristic of Romantic art is a yearning for nature - its magic and its enigmas - shown by the work of Turner and Friedrich. This contrasts to the view prevalent during the Enlightenment, which saw the universe as a mechanical system - a salient example being Newton's theories. These verses from Blake's notebook testify to his opinion of this view:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!

Mock on, Mock on, tis all in vain!

You throw the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again . . .

The atoms of Democritus

And Newton's Particles of Light

Are sands upon the Red sea shore,

Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.8

He feels the Enlightenment philosophers are attributing the forces of nature to this mechanical reality. In his remarks about Democritus and Newton he is deriding both ancient and modern wisdom at once, in favour of his own spiritual wisdom which descends from Christianity. As part of Creation, he still regards nature as repressive, but believes we can see beyond it to the infinite. His refusal to use nature as a source of inspiration sets him apart from most Romantics. In other words, he is so unique in his views that it is difficult to categorise him at all.

In conclusion, I believe that Blake's work can be classed as Romantic since he shares so many of the ideals that constitute the movement to us now. However, I regard this as something of a simplism because Blake was so unique and original, his influence on contemporaries so slight, that it scarcely matters what group we consign him to. He is at once Romantic artist, Biblical prophet, religious dissenter and political thinker. With his imagination he was able to defy the particulars of our world, our categories and our analyses. As he himself said in one of his most famous aphorisms: 'If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite'.9


Secondary sources:

1. Quotation from William Vaughan's Romanticism and Art, p9 (London.

Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1994). All references within the text are to this edition.

2. Ibid., p12

3. William Blake, quoted from Romanticism and Art p76.

4. Ibid., p72.

5. Henrik Steffens, quoted from Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder (London. Phoenix, 1996) p291.

6. Summary of ideas from The Story of Art by E.H.Gombrich (London. Phaidon Press, 16th edition, 1995) p490, and Paul Barlow's lecture Academicism versus Romanticism 2.

7. Quotation from Blake by Peter Ackroyd (London. Mandarin Paperbacks, 1996.) p194

8. Quotation from Blake's notebook (1800-06), appearing in pp488-497 of The Complete Poems (London. Penguin Group, 1997), here p494.

9. Quotation from Plate 14 of 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' by William Blake (1790-1794), appearing in pp180-195 of The Complete Poems, here p188.


Ackroyd, Peter, Blake (London. First published by Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995. This edition published by Mandarin Paperbacks, 1996)

Blake, William, The Complete Poems. Edited by Alicia Ostriker. (London. Penguin Group, 1997)

Gaarder, Jostein, Sophie's World (London. First published in Great Britain by Phoenix House in 1995. This edition published by Phoenix, 1996. Translation by Paulette Moller, 1994)

Gombrich, E. H., The Story of Art (London. First published in 1950 by Phaidon Press. 16th edition, 1995)

Vaughan, William, Romanticism and Art (London. First published in 1978 as Romantic Art, revised 1994 by Thames and Hudson Ltd)

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Comments (5)

Absolutely brilliant work Michael! A great interpretation of how Blake could be described as romantic. I suppose in some ways it was and his enthusiasm for his work certainly could be considered romantic as well. A very good read!

Excellent article

Ranked #1 in Art & Art History

Thank you. This was the second essay I wrote when I started university, so it's a bit naive, but thanks very much for the kind words.

Ranked #21 in Art & Art History

I love Blake!

amazing art, great article