Here are five of William Blake’s greatest paintings related to books – whether because the illustrations accompanied Blake’s prophetic books or other literary work (such as his poems) or because they actually feature books in a more literal sense.
1. Urizen with his book. In Blake’s own mythology, Urizen (the name is possibly derived from ‘your reason’) was the Old Testament God figure, a variant of Yahweh, who stands for logic, reason, and law. Blake’s The Book of Urizen (1794) outlines Urizen’s role: his relentless reason has oppressed humanity through religious dogma. Blake’s view of the Old Testament God as an oppressive figure was coloured by his revolutionary sympathies and undoubtedly fed into his famous pronouncement on Paradise Lost (1667): he described Milton as being ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Satan in Paradise Lost stands for rebellion against, and freedom from, the religious tyranny of the oppressive God; in Blake’s world, the one who must stand against Urizen is Orc.
2. Christian reading in his book. While we’re on the subject of seventeenth-century literature, here’s Blake’s depiction of Christian, the protagonist of John Bunyan’s religious allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Towards the end of his life, Blake made a total of 28 (unfinished) watercolour illustrations to accompany Bunyan’s text. He followed the message and symbolism of Bunyan’s book closely: this scene depicts Christian setting off on his pilgrimage, under lowering clouds, closely studying his book (the book of the law). Shortly after this, he will meet Evangelist, who will provide him with the scroll of inspiration (an idea Blake would have been much in sympathy with).
3. The Sick Rose. As can be seen below, this illustration accompanied Blake’s short poem on the sick rose – a poem that has been described as ‘one of the most enigmatic and baffling poems in the English language’. Here is the poem in full:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Some people see the rose and worm as representing different aspects of humanity, but part of the poem’s power undoubtedly lies in its ambiguity.
4. The Book of Thel. This poem is one of Blake’s prophetic books. Thel is a female figure representing desire – a kind of daughter of Venus. She is intrigued by, but also uncertain about, the vast world of experience that she is about to enter into. In many ways, the book shows Innocence discovering Experience. This striking frontispiece shows Thel and represents these two contrasting themes of innocence and experience. The book opens with Thel’s motto, which runs as follows: Does the Eagle know what is in the pit? Or wilt thou go ask the Mole: Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod? Or Love in a golden bowl? These words seem to relate to Blake’s rejection of organised religion, especially the Church of England. Rather like Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress mentioned above, The Book of Thel is a book telling of a journey in what might be described as allegorical terms: it features characters called Lily of the Valley, the Cloud, and the Clod of Clay … to say nothing of The Worm.
5. The Tyger. We had to finish with this one: one of Blake’s best-loved poems, once again accompanied by his illustration of the text. This is from Blake’s original printing of the poem, which appeared in his Songs of Experience in 1794. Why the unusual spelling of ‘Tyger’? This spelling was still used for the big cat in Blake’s day, but he perhaps employed a slightly obsolete form of the word for added effect, possibly to suggest the exotic, alien quality of the animal. The poem marvels at the ferocity and majesty of the beast, and is best viewed as the flip-side to one of Blake’s other poems, ‘The Lamb’. Whereas ‘The Tyger’ appeared in Songs of Experience, ‘The Lamb’ was one of the Songs of Innocence, bringing us back to that central dichotomy found in much of Blake’s work. ‘The Lamb’ is also well worth reading … and, indeed, listening to: the late composer John Tavener set the poem hauntingly to music. You can hear a recording of the piece here.
If you enjoyed this pick of Blake’s pictures, check out our facts about Sir Walter Scott and our post celebrating the interesting life of Wordsworth (and that daffodils poem).