William Blake (1757-1827) and his Legacy

Post by Sue Lewis

I have been agonizing over what to include in an article on William Blake since the huge and mind-boggling exhibition of his work opened at Tate Britain, Millbank, on 11 September 2019 and it has only has six more weeks to run until 2 February 2020.

Born on 28 November 1757 at 19:45 in London, Blake lived through the discoveries of the transpersonal planet Uranus, in 1781, and the dwarf planet Ceres, named after the goddess of nature and the harvest, in 1801. Uranus—the sky god of genius, hunches, independence, revolutions and innovations—which appeared during the American War of Independence and heralded the French Revolution, is the highest planet in Blake’s chart, while the chart as a whole resembles an archaeological site rich in mythological and historical narrative.

Uranus is at the apex of an Oscillo, a powerful electric current forming a challenging red square with Pluto in the creative 5th house, a harmonizing blue sextile with Venus in the 6th house of artistic endeavour, and earthed by a troubleshooting quincunx to fiery, visionary Mars, which is conjunct Neptune in the 1st personal house of the instinctual “I”. Eris, a dwarf planet discovered in 2005, named after the goddess of discord and represented by an upturned glyph of her brother Mars, is within one degree of Pluto in Sagittarius and therefore integrated into Blake’s sensitive Oscillo, a far-sighted figure that is highly responsive to people, places and situations, while retaining the authenticity of personal experience and insight. People with Oscillos are usually genuine and often misunderstood, as was Blake by all but a few people during his lifetime.

The sextile between Uranus and Venus also forms an Ambivalence Triangle with Moon in Cancer in the 12th house. Moon quincunx Saturn in Aquarius in the 7th raises questions about the relationships between mother and son and husband and wife. Blake reached out to his mother, Catherine, an educated woman from Nottingham who had attended services of the Moravian Church. She taught William to read and write, probably with the help of Moravian emblem books. Blake’s wife, also called Catherine, was the uneducated daughter of a Battersea market gardener. With the opposition of Saturn to Mars conjunct Neptune in the 1st house, we can imagine that their relationship could be stormy but Catherine was loyal and helped him with his work.

Sun conjunct Jupiter across the cusp of the 5th house of creativity makes linear trine aspects to North Node in the 1st house. The abundance of planets in fire signs and fire houses 1, 5 and 9, emphasizes the creative and visionary “I” to which Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) drew attention when introducing her book on Blake published by Thames and Hudson in 1970:

“Prophet, poet, painter, engraver—and according to tradition a composer of melodies as well—Blake’s unique greatness lies in no single achievement, but in the whole of what he was, which is more than the sum of all that he did. It belongs to a few great imaginative minds that they can create a world which seems to possess a reality, a coherence, a climate and atmosphere of its own”.

The opening room of the exhibition at Tate Britain features Albion Rose. Albion is the mythical name for Britain and Blake’s heroic personification of our nation has been depicted as an emblem of freedom, a call for social justice, a symbol of authenticity and much else. The appropriation from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell of the line, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite”, by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) for his essay on experiences with mescaline (1954) raised Blake’s status in the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s, as shown on the Hexen2.0 Tarot Card for the Five of Wands, which dubs him a “forerunner of modern anarchism”. Yet our favourite hymn and English anthem, “Jerusalem”—actually from Blake’s Preface to Milton: a Poem in 2 Books and not from his epic Jerusalem—emphasizes his patriotism. Ambivalence reigns. He was a powerfully expressive artist and poet of our nation and yet he eludes our grasp.

A key objective of the Tate exhibition is to dismantle the hype surrounding Blake’s legacy by taking a chronological approach and setting his life and work in the historical context of an empire-building Britain seeking to raise its profile in the Arts by founding the Royal Academy in 1768. So it focuses on Blake’s prodigious output, the materials he used, his innovations in engraving, the production of illustrated books for collectors, his ambitious exhibition of 1809 that was a flop, and how little money he made from various commissions. Many exhibits are small, labelling is inadequate for those of us who seek to connect an illustration with the lines of a poem or a story, and sequences of plates illustrating epic journeys often run contrary to the flow of people viewing them. So there’s a cornucopia of visual output, demonstrating the admirable work ethic of Venus conjunct Ceres in Capricorn the 6th house, also drawing inspiration from Mercury buried in intercepted Scorpio in the 4th house of the home and “England’s green and pleasant land”. This abundance of riches is accompanied by a few mundane facts but it’s difficult to get lift off into Blake’s visionary world.

One painting that remained in British Museum is Blake’s The Judgement of Paris where, in Troy: Myth and Reality (21 November 2019 to 8 March 2020), we are reminded that Eris, who had not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, threw the golden apple among the guests as an act of revenge, stirring up the events that led to the Trojan War. As facts and artefacts dating back to the well-known myth told in Homer’s Iliad are scarce, this exhibition has required its curators to take an imaginative perspective and, after the death of Achilles, consider the legends that grew up around those who survived, like the Greek Odysseus who eventually returned to his faithful wife Penelope on Ithaca, the Trojan Aeneas who voyaged to Italy via Carthage and sowed the seeds for the founding of Rome, and his descendant Brutus who supposedly founded and became the first king of Britain, or Albion. The inspiring myth of British descent from a Trojan warrior has kept this story alive and it is no surprise that Blake should have painted The Judgement of Paris. In a statuesque and impassioned painting, he captures a key moment in time. Paris is in a stupor as he hands the central goddess, Aphrodite, the golden apple. She receives it as of her right, while Hera stretches out her arms in distress and Athena looks stern, helmet in hand. Eros escapes with his bow and arrow to find Helen in Sparta, Mercury wears an ambivalent expression as he surveys the scene, while a demon in the top left-hand corner brandishing fiery torches fills us with foreboding.

Blake was a pivotal pre-Romantic in revolt against the Age of Reason, who was steeped in the past and envisioned the future. Many of us were introduced to his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in our early years. His longer poems are wide-ranging and can be difficult to penetrate without careful study, but they, too, contain insightful and quotable gems. The Oscillo in Blake’s chart contains a Projection Figure from Mars in the 1st house to Venus sextile Uranus crossing the Descendent from the 6th to 8th houses, and his projection of ideas, emotions, and visions that touch the soul can be received and transformed in numerous ways. That is his legacy to us. Nor is it merely a national legacy. Fascination with Blake, what he depicted and said, or what we think he said extends far beyond these shores.

Olga Tokarczuk’s subversive novel takes its title from one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:

“Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Originally published in Polish in 2009, it has been beautifully translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and available to English readers since 2018. Set in a remote Polish village, a no man’s land close to the Czech border, its inhabitants include environmentalists, hunters and Oddball in a philosophical space where we witness some strange deaths. The novel is bound together by the protagonist’s passion for astrology, which is hers alone, and her passion for Blake, which she shares with another key character. The chapter, “Uranus in Leo”, which takes us further into the character of the narrator—a woman in her sixties called Janina Duszejko—is introduced with another quotation from Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:

“Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth”.

I don’t personally agree with her interpretation of the Horoscope as “a form of imprisonment in space, like a tattooed prison number”, but the book is a fascinating read that raises important questions about modern life.

Regarding William Blake, I believe he was more interested in opening doors than closing them and resists circumscription. In this way, he will go on inspiring us and nurturing our vision for the future, although we may not entirely agree with one another over what it is.

Editor’s note. In this article Sue uses and comments on the positioning of several dwarf planets in Blake’s chart. Such planets were regarded by Bruno Huber as of secondary importance and were thus not included in the Huber teachings.