Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Blake, William

(1757-1827) English writer and painter, the most visionary and genuinely revolutionary of the great Romantic poets. WB's vision of the human spirit freed of the shackles of institutional orthodoxy is essentially religious, and the vivid evocations in his lyrics, narrative poems and engravings of cosmic energies and animist-like powers (such as that of "the Tyger") must be understood in terms of the Christianity of his Dissenting background, whatever the temptation to impute a more modern sensibility. The Songs of Innocence (coll 1787 chap) and Songs of Experience (coll 1794 chap) have been immensely influential upon 20th-century literature, although probably only in the sense that the critic Harold Bloom would call a "weak misreading": the WB – it is almost invariably early WB – who supplies 20th-century authors, genre ones especially, with lines for the titles and epigraphs of their books is an author whom fashion can adopt, not an author valued for his capacity to disrupt and surprise.

If WB's early verse has found an audience in recent decades, his later, more complex works may have to wait longer, for they are rarely read save for academic studies. His series of cosmological yet highly personal narrative poems, culminating in Milton (dated 1804 but not published until much later; probably composed 1803-1808, with the final plates etched and printed – both by WB – circa 1815) and Jerusalem (dated 1804 but written and etched much later; the earliest copies issued by WB are on paper with watermark 1820), are of sufficient singularity and difficulty that as late as 1910 the Encyclopaedia Britannia (11th edn) was willing to question WB's sanity. Certainly their difficulty is compounded by a discursiveness at variance with the extreme compression of the Songs and The Mental Traveller (written circa 1803; 1905); they are not made more accessible by the fact that many of WB's solemn myth-figures have names (Oothoon, or Los's "City of Art and Manufacture" Golgonooza) that strike modern ears as risible, nor the fact that appreciation of the poems requires study of the accompanying drawings (100 engraved plates accompany Jerusalem's more than 4000 lines). WB's more daunting late works, hortatory and forbidding as they are, reward persistence without requiring gloss; their vision of horrific struggle and agon possesses a dramatic force that is genuinely harrowing.

The unworldly, rather bardic WB of popular imagination (a compound of pre-Victorian William Morris craftsman and proto-hippie) will remain an anthology favourite, the savagery of his lyrics dimly apprehended; his engravings, familiar enough from postcards and posters, give a better sense of his imaginative power. Writing in Jerusalem, WB declares, "I must Create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's"; and the intricacy and comprehensiveness of his system, viewed as an act of world-building, is rivalled only by that of J R R Tolkien.

Surprisingly (in light of Genre Fantasy's predilection for dramatizing the lives of the Romantic poets), fiction concerning WB is scarce. The wanderer called Taleswapper in Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son (1987) is plainly the WB of the early lyrics (which he quotes). Ray Nelson's Blake's Progress (1975 Canada; rev vt Timequest 1985 US) is a Time-Travel tale of WB and his wife; it is an imaginative portrait, with the emphasis on WB the painter. The Jim Jarmusch movie Dead Man (1995) features a protagonist believed to be WB reborn, and The Pit * (1993) by Neil Penswick, in the New Doctor Who Adventures, has WB as a protagonist. Fantasies that make use of Blakean creations are rarer still. Blakean names (like Urizen and Theotormon) appear in Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers novels, but these are merely flavourings for the author's cosmological gallimaufry, which is essentially Jungian. Thomas Harris's Serial-Killer novel Red Dragon (1981), filmed as Manhunter (1986; vt Red Dragon), utilizes the titular WB painting as a central metaphor. The mountain range that is the work of WB has been thickly settled in its foothills, but its peaks remain all but unscaled. [GF]

William Blake


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.