Thursday, April 23, 2009

“Bring me my bow of burning gold...”

As Paris fully entered exuberant springtime the other day, the novia and I found ourselves strolling down the Champs-Élysées. Losing ourselves in the crowds of tourists, we walked following an hour spent perusing a retrospective of the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake at the Musée des Beaux-Arts of the Petit Palais that was most impressive indeed.

Blake has been among my favorite poets ever since my midteens, when I read two volumes of his poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the prophetic/mystic book-length poem Jerusalem, in a volume of his collected works. Subject to auditory and visual visions (some would say hallucinations) since his youth, Blake’s poetry was intensely mystical in its yearning for a melding of the corporeal and incorporeal worlds, perhaps somewhat akin to the poetry of the great Persian mystic bard Rumi in its search for the divine among the everyday. Though the work of John Milton, particularly given its context in the midst of England’s civil war, perhaps had a greater emotional impact on me over the years, the intensity of Blake’s religious/mystical vision has always stuck with me. Blake’s vision was powerful enough through the years to inspire the poet Allen Ginsberg, who had a 1948 auditory hallucination of Blake reading his poem "Ah, Sunflower" in a Harlem apartment, to a new dedication to his own writing.

Seeing for the first-time the exquisitely wrought illuminated manuscripts that Blake etched to illustrate his own books of poetry (which he could barely give away during his lifetime) was a powerful lesson in staying true to one’s vision, no matter how incongruous or unpopular it might seem to one’s contemporaries. Likewise, such Blake illustrations as that of a heroically put-upon Job and a series of extraordinary illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy make for a moving and more than a little disturbing experience in a Paris museum on a blazing spring day. But one well worth the time to meditate over its impact.

The Blake retrospective runs at the Petit Palais until June 28th.

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