“The genius,” Schopenhauer wrote in his timeless distinction between genius and talent, “lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets, to whose well-regulated and comprehensible arrangement its wholly eccentric course is foreign.” Unlike the person of talent, whose work simply exceeds in excellence the work of their contemporaries and is therefore easily appreciated by them, Schopenhauer argued that person of genius produces work which differs not in mere degree of excellence but in kind of vision. It is therefore often ridiculed or, worse yet, entirely ignored by the creator’s contemporaries, to be rediscovered and appreciated only by posterity.
Arguably no genius embodies this tragic tenet more perfectly than William Blake(November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827), who lived amid ridicule and died in relative obscurity, then went on to inspire generations of artists. He was a lifelong muse to Maurice Sendak and a kind of creative patron saint for Patti Smith. He produced stunning art for Milton’s Paradise Lost and labored over his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy until his dying day. Centuries later, his verses continue to quench an immutable existential thirst.
Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost
Blake’s genius sprang from his unusual spiritual disposition. Both drawn to and discomfited by religion, he chose instead to live in a world of abstract spirituality, amid a self-created cosmogony, agnostic and often unabashedly antagonistic to scripture. His was an irreverent reverence, intellectually daring and contemptuous of dogma yet animated by unflinching faith in the human spirit, in our capacity for self-transcendence, and in the ability to ameliorate the sorrowful finitude of our lives by contacting eternity through the supreme conduits of truth and beauty — truth and beauty that continue to radiate from his art. He may have died in poverty, but he lived enriched and electrified by the mirth of creativity.
Nowhere does Blake’s singular genius and orientation of spirit shine more brilliantly than in a letter he wrote to a Reverend John Trusler in the summer of 1799, included in The Portable William Blake (public library), edited by the great Alfred Kazin.
William Blake, “The Last Supper”
Trusler was a priest and an early self-help entrepreneur of sorts, who authored books with titles like Hogarth Moralized, A Sure Way to Lengthen Life with Vigor, and The Way to be Rich and Respectable. Practicing his own preachings, he made non-negligible sums from his clever idea to sell sermons printed to appear handwritten so as to relieve the corner-cutting devout of the drudgery of composition. After seeing Blake’s “The Last Supper” exhibited at the Royal Academy in May of 1799, Trusler decided to commission him for a series of moralistically themed artworks intended to illustrate Trusler’s writings on subjects such as malevolence, benevolence, pride, and humility.
But, as might be expected when a visionary is mistaken for a hand for hire, trouble arose — Blake had his own visions for the art, but Trusler had very specific, rather crude ideas informed by the era’s popular caricature aesthetic. He wrote to Blake with a litany of criticisms, condemning his approach as overly transcendent and whimsical, and accusing him of having an imagination that belongs to “the world of spirits” and unbefitting Trusler’s worldly intentions.
First and last pages of Blake’s letter to Trusler, August 23, 1799. (Images: British Library)
On August 16, 1799, a clearly aggravated and artistically indignant middle-aged Blake fires back in a letter brimming with the curious coalition undergirding all of his art — vexation with the status quo, deep personal torment, and unassailable creative buoyancy. He writes to Trusler:
I find more & more that my style of designing is a species by itself, and in this which I send you have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led; if I were to act otherwise it would not fulfill the purpose for which alone I live, which is … to renew the lost art of the Greeks.
I attempted every morning for a fortnight together to follow your dictate, but when I found my attempts were in vain, resolved to show an independence which I know will please an author better than slavishly following the track of another, however admirable that track may be. At any rate, my excuse must be: I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!
I know I begged of you to give me your ideas and promised to build on them; here I counted without my host. I now find my mistake.
In a sentiment that Tchaikovsky would echo exactly a century later in his lamentation about the paradox of commissioned work and creative freedom, Blake argues that what prohibited him from obeying Trusler’s demands was the impossibility — nay, the sacrilege — of disobeying the muse:
[I] cannot previously describe in words what I mean to design, for fear I should evaporate the spirit of my invention… And tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine, being of the same opinion with Milton when he says that the Muse visits his slumbers and awakes and governs his song when morn purples the East, and being also in the predicament of that prophet who says: “I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord, to speak good or bad.”
One of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy
Trusler was incensed and fired further criticism. Before replying to Trusler, Blake wryly confided in his dear friend and lifelong supporter George Cumberland, who had introduced Trusler to Blake’s work and had facilitated the commission: “I could not help smiling at the difference between the doctrines of Dr. Trusler and those of Christ,”
In what remains his greatest letter, Blake defends his vision to Trusler — but his words radiate a larger, more universal and eternal defense of the creative spirit against all the forces which continually try to corrupt it, contract it, and contain it within a suffocating smallness of purpose.
On August 23, 1799, a part-sincere, part-sardonic Blake addresses Trusler’s complaint that his art warrants explanation and is simply too imaginative:
I really am sorry that you are fallen out with the spiritual world, especially if I should have to answer for it… If I am wrong, I am wrong in good company… What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care.
Asserting that Trusler’s eye has been “perverted by caricature prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do,” Blake makes a beautiful case for beauty (or ugliness) being in the eye of the beholder, implying that the art of living lies largely in training the eye to attend to what is beautiful and noble — an argument all the more urgent amid our present culture of rampant cynicism and a media ecosystem that traffics in outrage as its chief currency.
Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.
You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.
There is no greater testament to the enchantment of the real world, Blake argues, than the imagination of children, who see the grand and eternal in the ordinary and who are, as E.B. White would argue three centuries later, “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.”Blake writes:
I am happy to find a great majority of fellow mortals who can elucidate my visions, and particularly they have been elucidated by children, who have taken a greater delight in contemplating my pictures than I even hoped. Neither youth nor childhood is folly or incapacity. Some children are fools and so are some old men. But there is a vast majority on the side of imagination or spiritual sensation.
Another of Blake’s drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy
Complying with the era’s epistolary etiquette, Blake ends with a signature comically courteous in the contrasting context of his defiant letter:
I am, Revd. Sir, your very obedient servant,
Couple the altogether indispensable Portable William Blake (public library) with Patti Smith’s loving homage to Blake, then complement this particular portion with artist Anne Truitt’s beautiful meditation on what sustains the creative spirit.