A Letter From the Young William Blake in Defense of the Imagination
In a revealing epistle, Blake discusses the fundamental role of imagination in artistic creation and, more so, in our perception of the world.
The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.
For William Blake, imagination represented the pillar of the spirit, an essential part of being human and an inexhaustible source of beauty. The imagination’s capacity to transcend and diminish the finitude of our nature could only, for Blake, result from a contact with nobility and truth. In a letter he wrote at the age of 20, Blake reveals with his characteristically pristine clarity the precepts that would define his later work and thought.
In the summer of 1777, Reverend John Trusler – an author of successful books on religion in the manner of the modern bestsellers – contacted Blake after seeing Blake’s version of The Last Supper exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. The Reverend, who’d grown wealthy on his own writings, commissioned the artist to illustrate some of his texts on morality and which delved into themes like humility, goodness, and evil.
The genius of William Blake, though, was always misunderstood. Trusler’s understanding was no exception. After receiving the images he’d commissioned (Blake, it goes without saying, didn’t respond to the caricature of religious imagery of his time), the Reverend wrote a letter to Blake criticizing the work and calling it weird and of an exaggerated extravagance. He went so far as to assert that Blake’s imagination belonged rather more to the “spirit world,” whatever that might mean.
In one of Blake’s most beautiful letters, the then 20-year-old poet – always uncomfortable with the social conventions of his era – assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he’d commanded had been dictated by “my Genius or Angel,” one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”
Blake asserts in the letter that the spirit of his creation, despite being called his own, in reality, was never. It responded to impulses greater and more powerful than any human being.
Blake defends his vision before an offended Trusler, who’d defined the art of the young man as too imaginative. Blake’s reply was full of wisdom and firmness:
I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual world, especially if I should have to answer for it… If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company… What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.
In his response, Blake also asserts that both beauty and ugliness dwell exclusively in the eye that sees and qualifies them. He claims that the art of life is to train the eye to notice what is truly beautiful and noble, an undertaking that would well change the way we live in today’s world.
I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser, a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these, I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. […] 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 lived in the dark and died in poverty. His genius and his vision were only fully appreciated after his death. The anecdote of the Reverend and the drawings gave rise to this letter, for many the most important ever written by the English poet. It is, in fact, a manifesto of artistry and life, in defense of the creative spirit and the connection with the sacred. In much the same way, one could understand Emanuel Swedenborg’s conversations with angels. The artist, enlightened at a very young age, was early able to identify the vices that inhabit, corrupt, contain and suffocate the world. He already knew the spirit (that of which Borges recurrently spoke) that guides artists and dwells in the same place where our immortal imagination opens.
True geniuses, like William Blake, are those whose minds exceed their times and their conventions. They are geniuses who, like the author of this letter, are capable of performing the most beautiful acts of rebellion in the name of dignity and fidelity to oneself. Blake closes his letter to the Rev. John Trusler with the irony that his elegance alone could have formulated:
I am, Revd. Sir, your very obedient servant,
*Images: 1) remix from William Blake’s painting: The First Book of Urizen, Plate 2, “Preludium to the Book of Urizen” (Bentley 2a), 1794; 2) The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 65 The Bard 13 by William Blake, 1797 / Public Domain
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