William Blake: The River of Life

I visited a small exhibition down at the Tate today – William Blake: The River of Life.  The exhibition explores the themes that pervaded Blake’s work throughout his life – childhood and innocence and death, resurrection and the afterlife. The images selected are overwhelmingly religious.  I found it difficult to become engaged with the material.

From the exhibition notes:

Blake’s work expresses a singular and personal mythology that draws upon narratives and themes from Biblical subjects and classical poetry. For Blake, creative inspiration and religious belief were inseparable. In his most dazzling works he expresses almost limitless imaginative ambition. His intent was ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower’.

Blake held radical religious and political convictions. Believing in the importance of a spiritual art in a materialistic age, he became convinced that there existed a richer spiritual world beyond physical existence. This display presents Blake’s preoccupation with the life cycle, not as a predetermined journey but rather as part of a totality within which life, death and resurrection belong to a single spiritual realm.

The first section of the exhibition, ‘Paradise Lost: Innocence and Childhood’, takes Blake’s The River of Life (c.1805, top) as its point of departure:

Here Christ is depicted leading children through the stream of time, which flows between innocence and experience separated on opposing riverbanks. Blake’s view of Man’s creation by God offers insight into his philosophies. He regarded each man a freespirit.  Our loss of Paradise occurs not in the Garden of Eden, but at our moment of birth, with man dragged from the spiritual realm and enslaved by being given material form. Blake equated the childhood state with divinity.

Age Teaching Youth (c.1785-90) meditates on the relationship between innocence and experience. The image of a seated adult with children or youths reading occurs in a number of Blake’s works from the 1780s, including the title page to Songs of Innocence.   It has been suggested that the leaf and tendril motif on the dress of the youth in the foreground (who seems to be drawing) identifies him as representative of a mind limited to nature and its imitation. The old man might represent the law, which is contradicted by the girl who, gesturing heavenwards towards the infinite, might represent imagination.

The next section of the exhibition, ‘Experience and Wisdom’, explores Blake’s perception of wisdom and his rejection of rationalism:

In Blake’s view exposure to a material world where corruption and adherence to religious dogma prevail over mercy brings loss of innocence. Wisdom, he felt, could only be gained through our own liberty and self-discovery. Art, he felt, provided insight into the metaphysical world and was potentially redemptive for humanity. In his search for wisdom Blake rejected mere scientific and artistic speculation, but instead sought the demanding spiritual surety available from the imaginative spirit. Blake’s depiction of Isaac Newton, the personification of reason, expresses Blake’s rejection of scientific rationalism. Through the accidental nature of the colours and texture of the rock  Blake asserts his belief in the supremacy of the creative imagination. Likewise, Los and Orc (c.1792-3) is pure visionary mysticism, the two figures representing disparate aspects of the human mind, embattled in attempted reconciliation.

The section ‘Death and the Afterlife’ explores Blake’s visions of the afterlife:

Through visionary experience he claimed to converse with the Archangels. He wrote: ‘heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates…voices of Celestial inhabitants are. . . distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen’. At the very end of his own life he told his wife Catherine that they would never be parted. As well as expressing his affection for his Iife-Iong companion, the sentiment confirms Blake’s belief in a heightened metaphysical realm. Throughout his work the Bible provides Blake’s intellectual foundation, and many of his works concern Christ’s Crucifixion and  Resurrection.


3 thoughts on “William Blake: The River of Life

  1. Very Helpful. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I am a great lover of Blake and had a dream that reminded me of The River of Life – so I looked it up on the web and found your posting.

  2. Seeing The River of Life at the Tate about 40 years ago was one of my most intense experiences with art. I entered into the painting and felt the exhiliration of the spiritual journey the painting portrays.

    As far as your title “That’s How The Light Gets In”, many of us know it is a line in Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem.” However, I was reading a Blake biography recently and learned that once a Baptist minister was asked if he thought Blake was cracked, and the minister replied “Yes, but his is a crack that lets in the light.”

    1. Thanks for that. Can you recall who wrote that biography? I’ve never heard that line before about Blake. The home page of this blog discusses the Cohen connection.

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