By Isabel Ringrose
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2913

William Blake: The poet inspired by emancipation and revolution

Author Judy Cox spoke to Socialist Worker about her republished book William Blake—The Scourge of Tyrants
Issue 2913
Painting of huddled figures

Blake painted ‘mind-forg’d manacles’

Blake’s revolutionary contributions are often deliberately obscured. Alive from 1757 to 1827, Blake wrote during the rise of industrial capitalism and the British Empire and the French revolution.

“People see Blake’s poetry as complex and difficult. Some of his later works are.

“But Blake’s early works are profoundly politically engaged—and they tell us something about fighting against oppression and for emancipation,” Judy told Socialist Worker.

Blake’s work makes it clear “he is on the side of the oppressed and opposed to war and empire”.

“Blake also wrote a lot about sex, sexual freedom, liberation and women. He was in favour of masturbation and sex that wasn’t just the missionary position,” Judy explained.

“In this pre-Victorian period he was very much appalled at criminalised love. He wrote The Garden of Love as a strong plea for sexual freedom from the church.”

In recent years there’s also been more research into Blake’s attitude towards enslaved people in the Caribbean.

“He did some famous illustrations with incredibly powerful images of the horrors of slavery,” Judy added.

In 1794 Blake published the poem London where he writes about “mind-forg’d manacles”.

“This is referring to alienation, our lack of power and the chains forged in our heads,” Judy said.

“For example, why didn’t the English follow the French after the revolution? Blake hated the church, the aristocracy and imperialism.

“In 1780 rioters in London burnt down Newgate prison and liberated the prisoners.

“Blake was in the crowd. Afterwards people painted ‘King Mob’ on the side of the walls.”

But Blake’s work is often “taken out of the context of the time he was writing”.

“Blake was engaged in very practical debates. He was attacked by the likes of the anti‑revolution Edmund Burke for his support for the French revolution.

“He wasn’t isolated or ‘gloriously mad’ as poet William Wordsworth called him.

“He was committed to and engaged with politics of his time. He wore a red bonnet—a

symbol of support for the revolution even though this was dangerous to do.”

Judy explained that the watering down of politics “happens to all great revolutionary artists”.

“Blake is portrayed as a lonely eccentric who spoke to angels. But he retreated as a way of coping with the failure of his political hopes.

“He was at risk of persecution and a lot of his fellow radicals were forced into exile in America.”

Judy argues that isolating Blake from his politics “renders him a different poet”.

“His poetry is full of what it means to have your creativity sucked out of you by machines—by the dark satanic mills.

“Jerusalem in particular is an articulated protest against this. England’s ‘second national anthem’ is not a nationalist poem.

“When you unpick the imagery, Blake says that Jesus couldn’t come down among the clouded hills—the imagery of oppression—and we need to unfold revolution.

“It points towards fighting for a different future—Jerusalem is a utopian society where people are free of slavery and oppression.”

Judy hopes that the book provides a better understanding of “the context of the revolutions Blake was inspired by”.

“It’s more truthful and meaningful than isolated art—it cannot be separated from society.

“And Blake still speaks to us. We can take inspiration from someone who was opposed to industrialisation that destroys us and oppression that limits our lives—and the joyful idea of what revolution is.”

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