Friday, August 21, 2015

Madman or visionary? William Blake died of liver disease at 69 while singing hymns

Many of his friends, including his wife, regarded William Blake as a holy visionary with a direct line to the Almighty, and others thought he was as mad as a hatter. His day job, as a successful printer and engraver, was conventional enough, but in his writings and paintings he showed an eccentric streak of mysticism that many people found unintelligible.

Blake’s venture into unknown realms began soon after his birth on November 28, 1757, in the Soho section of London. The third of seven children of James Blake, a hosier, and his wife, Catherine, William said when he was four that he saw God peering in the window. At ten he saw a tree filled with angels, and some years later when his brother died of tuberculosis, Blake saw his spirit ascend through the ceiling. Baptised in the Church of England even though his family were Dissenters, he had scant formal education and spent time studying the Bible, which remained a strong influence on his work.

At the age of fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to an engraver for seven years, at the end of which he opened his own shop, achieving success and some prominence for his relief etching, intaglio engraving, and illustrations of Biblical and literary works.  He also began to draw, paint watercolors, and write idiosyncratic poetry. Most people are familiar with his enigmatic  
                Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
                In the forests of the night: 
                What immortal hand or eye,
                Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
    He was known for such other works as Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. His paintings and drawings included sketches of such historical and mythical figures as King Solomon and Merlin, who he said stopped by and posed for him. An exhibit of Blake’s artwork drew a derisive review as "nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity" created by "an unfortunate lunatic."

In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. She was an illiterate young woman whom he taught to read and write and who became his assistant in his engraving work and a valued muse for his poetic and artistic inspiration.

Although baptized and married in the Church of England, Blake remained hostile to formal religion, although he espoused his own brand of mystical Christianity.  “The glory of Christianity,” he wrote, is to conquer by forgiveness.”

In his later years Blake’s professional fortunes took a turn for the worse and he and Catherine grew dependent on financial help from their friend John Linnell, a successful painter.

Blake suffered for several years from what he called a “cold in my stomach,” now thought to be inflammatory bowel disease, a chronic diarrheal condition with fever, chills, and “shivering fits.” This illness was probably caused by a weakening of Blake’s immune system owing to copper poisoning from his constant exposure to fumes in his engraving and etching work.  The IBD then led to sclerosing cholangitis, an inflammation of the bile ducts leading to the liver, and in turn to biliary cirrhosis of the liver and liver failure, which ultimately caused Blake’s death.

A few days before he died, plagued by chronic stomach upset, yellowing skin from jaundice, and swollen legs and arms, Blake spent his last shilling on a pencil—which he needed to work on illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy.  On the day he died, he stopped work on the drawings, turned to Catherine, and said, “Stay, Kate!  Keep just as you are, and I will draw your portrait, for you have ever been an angel to me.” He finished this drawing and then began to sing hymns  of his own composition about the eternal bliss to which he would soon rise. At 6:00 on the evening of August 12, 1827, his breathing labored by pulmonary edema and apnea, Blake died at the age of sixty-nine. 

His friend George Richmond wrote this account of his final moments: “He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

Blake was buried five days later at the Dissenters’ burial ground in Bunhill Fields. Catherine had to borrow the money for the funeral from Linnell. She then supported herself as a housekeeper for another of Blake’s friends, Frederick Tatham.  Until her death in 1831 she said she was regularly visited by Blake’s spirit, whom she always consulted before selling any of his drawings and paintings.

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