Friday, 19 April 2013

Seeing Angels

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake (‘Blake’, Vintage) I found a marvellous account of how Blake saw the Archangel Gabriel in his study. Blake was reading Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ when he came to a passage where the poet asks ‘who can paint an angel?’ Blake shut the book and mused aloud:

Blake: Aye! Who can paint an angel?
Voice: Michel Angelo could.

He looked about but saw nothing except ‘a greater light than usual’.

Blake: And how do you know?
Voice: I know, for I sat to him: I am the arch-angel Gabriel.
Blake: Oho! You are, are you? I must have better assurance than that of a wandering voice; you may be an evil spirit – there are such in the land.
Voice: You shall have good assurance. Can an evil spirit do this?

And then Blake saw a shining, winged shape, which ‘dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe.’

As is well known, Blake saw visions all his life. As a child of about four he was frightened (his wife reminded him) by a vision of God who ‘put his head to the window and set you a-screaming’; as a slightly older child he saw a tree bespangled full of angels, and met the Prophet Ezekiel out in the fields. As a man, he saw, conversed with and drew ‘Spectres of the Dead’, angels, Jesus, ‘the ghost of a flea’. He saw ‘the Ancient of Days’ hovering at the top of his narrow, dim staircase.

The Ghost of a Flea

None of this did him any favours in practical real-life terms. Some friends revered him, but a much larger proportion considered him eccentric and odd, if not outright mad. Blake was one of those artists and poets who are not much appreciated in their own lifetimes. He always struggled to make a living, and financial and social success eluded him. And yet he was rightly convinced of his own genius, so much so that one can’t feel the pity for him that one feels for Vincent Van Gogh or John Keats, dying before they could know of their own undying fame. Blake was so certain of the worth of his work, the truth and grandeur of his visions, that public recognition – though doubtless it would have been welcome – was not essential to him.

But what would we make of William Blake today? I don’t know about you, but if a neighbour buttonholed me one day and began to tell me that he’d recently been talking to John Milton – ‘I have seen him as a youth. And as an old man with a long flowing beard. He came lately as an old man’ – well, I might tend to back off. It is eccentric and odd to see angels, and it’s hard to blame Blake’s acquaintances for their scepticism which in turn fostered their general sense that he was a man who should not really be taken seriously.

The Great Red Dragon & The Woman Clothed in the Sun

We make exceptions for genius with the benefit of hindsight. With the weight of a century or so of bolstering critical opinion, we all now recognise that William Blake was a genius, and so we suspend our disbelief about his visions. Who knows what a genius may or may not see? Perhaps we consider that, as an artist as well as a poet, Blake’s visual imagination produced images so vivid, so concrete, that in some way they did indeed ‘appear’ before him. Perhaps, as Peter Ackroyd suggests early in his book, the faculty of eidetic imagery, fairly common in children who see hallucinatory images as genuine sensory perceptions, was retained by Blake throughout his life.

Or perhaps he did see angels? What does it mean to say you see angels?

At any rate, this is a man who sang – and drew a picture of his wife – on his deathbed. “‘Stay Kate,’ he said, ‘keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.’” His friend George Richmond (the artist who later drew the flattering portrait head of Charlotte Bronte) wrote to Samuel Palmer,

“He died on Sunday night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see and 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.”

Or, as Blake himself wrote in ‘The Four Zoas’,

‘…he shook his aged mantles off
Into the fires Then glorious bright Exulting in his joy
He sounding rose into the heavens in naked majesty
In radiant youth.’



  1. This makes me think of Helene Hanff's comments about Blake seeing the prophet Ezekiel and what she thought his mother should have done as a consequence. I can't quote it exactly, as I don't have the book to hand, but it's in '84 Charing Cross Road' and worth looking up. Ackroyd's book has been sitting on my shelves unread for far too long, thanks for nudging me in it's direction.

  2. I can'r help wondering if Blake was mildly epileptic and nobody ever realised it - apparently it is something that can make you see visions.

  3. You might enjoy browsing through this amazing online digital collection of all of Blake's works offered by the Library of Congress. It is a bit clunky at first to use -- but bear with it. You can open every page of every edition he produced and using the pull down menu on the left side, you can enlarge the images. Gorgeous close up of his detailed work.

  4. Ooh, thankyou! I'll check that out.