Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent, Insanity, and William Blake

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

It's my birthday and also the birthday of William Blake, English mystic, poet, and artist born in 1757 whose works were once ignored and now considered genius. During his lifetime, he was considered insane because he challenged the prevailing cultural institutions and wrote and painted with abandon. Well, that, and he also had "visions" and conversations with people who weren't there. Minor point.

It feels appropriate to read Blake during Advent since it is, if anything at all, a season of paradox, even absurdity. We look for Christ's return and celebrate it, singing "rejoice, rejoice" knowing that on December 25, we will still be bound by earthly existence and its accompanying suffering, death, and decay. All perfectly logical, right? We believe that a baby was God incarnate, born of a Virgin, crucified and resurrected from the dead. Nothing insane there. We say we are ransomed, but we have not been released. Advent rationality includes light in the.darkness, faith within fear, power within vulnerability, already here and still to come, valleys raised, mountains made low, crooked places straight. Blake, even with his visions, is no weirder than these things. He believed that to understand who we are, we have to live in the tension between "complementary opposites." His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are flip-sides, even to the point of his writing and illustrating them on the opposite sides of one sheet of paper.
Joy and Woe    
~William Blake 
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go. 
Sounds sane to me, but what do I know?

Did Blake have visions or were they hallucinations? And what is artistic vision, anyway? Are these lines impossible, or are they truer than what our five senses know? Are these lines the secret to walking on water? Because, we believe that happened, right?
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,  William Blake

Like all good Romantic poets, Blake valued the imaginative over the rational, but Blake's imagination was all-encompassing. Everything had symbolic or metaphoric significance. His goal was "raising other men into a perception of the infinite," and he wielded his cryptic, fiery pen like a wizard's wand to bring the infinite into view.

I'm trying again to write some poetry of my own, and finding that my logical mind is my biggest hindrance. I end up writing explanations and arguments, not poetry. But, Advent is a visionary season, and it begs for wild, keening siren songs that pull us into the night to look for the angel host descending rank on rank. Do we have ears to hear them? Do we have eyes to see this?

Descent of Peace, William Blake

Ponder nothing earthly minded...

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